The Mirror and the Light (Magnificence | Part 4)

He pushes his glass away. Like Norfolk, but less hastily, he extracts himself from the table linen. Gardiner is no fool. A demon, but no fool. ‘Good marmalade,’ he says. ‘I think it is Lady Lisle’s recipe? The king often praises it.’

‘She sends it to us all,’ Gardiner says, as if excusing himself.

‘To all those she wishes to please. Does she wrap letters around it?’

Gardiner looks at him with appreciation. ‘By God, nothing gets by you, does it? Not even the preserves.’ He sighs. ‘Thomas, we both know what it is to serve this king. We know it is impossible. The question is, who can best endure impossibility? You have never lost his favour. I have lost it many times. And yet –’

‘And yet here you are. Looking to be back on the council.’

Stephen ushers him out: the open air. ‘You know what the king wants. That we should sink our differences in service to him. That we should declare ourselves entire perfect friends.’

They touch palms, coldly. As he runs down the steps to the wharf, Stephen calls, ‘Cromwell? Mind your back.’

It is a raw day of splintering sunlight, the first sign of the season changing. His barge takes him back across the river. On his flag, little black birds flutter: the cardinal’s choughs, dancing about their pole.

His bargemaster says, ‘We saw the duke’s barge, and we said, by the Mass, pity my lord – Norfolk and Gardiner, both?’

He says, ‘I feel to my master the king as I do to Christ, hanging between two thieves.’

He takes off his glove, slides a hand inside his garments. When his hand appears again, his knife is in it. ‘Christophe?’ he says. ‘This is yours now. Try not to use it.’

Christophe turns the knife over in his hands. ‘I shall stand taller for owning it. Why do you part with it now?’

‘Because I almost stuck it in Norfolk.’ From his crew, a subdued cheer. ‘You can tell Mr Sadler I have surrendered it.’ Rafe wanted me to grow up, he thinks, before I grow old.

Bastings asks, ‘Did you make it yourself, sir? When you did that sort of work?’

‘No. That one I made … I lost it. This was given me by a young lady in Rome. I have had it for some years.’

‘And put it to some use, I warrant,’ Bastings says admiringly. ‘Sir, a thing you should know. That little lass of the duke’s, I hear she is spoiled. There is one in the old duchess’s household boasts he has had his fingers in her cunt. He says he has felt it in the dark and he would know it among a hundred.’

‘Where did you hear that, from the watermen?’ He wraps his cloak around himself. Even if it is true, he thinks, what can I do with it? If the king is in love he will trample anyone who gets between him and his sport. He says, ‘Bastings – consort with men with cleaner minds.’

I shall forget I ever heard it, he thinks. He is rowed across the Thames, furiously forgetting it. One among a hundred?

I kissed her sweet, and she kissed me;

I danced the darling on my knee.

My fancy fairly on her I set:

So merrily singeth the nightingale.

Mr Wriothesley is waiting for him. He tells him, ‘You can write to the ambassadors that Winchester and I have dined. That we now understand each other perfectly.’

Wriothesley says, ‘Shall I add some such phrase as “all past displeasures be now forgot”?’

‘At your discretion, Mr Wriothesley.’

Sometimes it seems to him we have not made any advance since Epiphany. The Romans and Britons are still fighting through his dreams. They advance, retreat, press forward again. They slash, they stab, they feint, they duck; they raise their armoured limbs slowly and chop, chop, chop.

In Calais, a new commission is sitting to find out heretics. Norfolk started it, when he passed through: setting a fire there, then stepping on a boat and sailing away. He says to the king, ‘Why don’t we find out traitors instead? Forty Frenchmen under arms could take Calais in an hour. The rot is within, and I do not mean the townsfolk, I mean those who have charge of all.’

The king says, pained, ‘Lord Lisle is very dear to me.’

‘I won’t trouble Lord Lisle,’ he says. Not yet: I will start with his friends. ‘I want certain papers. Wyatt has told me what to look for. He knows all about Calais.’

‘Oh, Wyatt,’ the king says. ‘What he says he does not mean, and what he means he does not say.’

It is Bishop Sampson who is his immediate target. Putting him under house arrest, he impounds his papers and scours them for any hint of dealings with Pole; any hints that others, among his friends, might have dealt with Pole. When the king says, well, Cromwell, what proof, he says, sir, it is intricate work. It is like putting together one of the pavements at the abbey. You have triangles and circles, rectangles and squares. You have limestone and porphyry, serpentine and glass. You must work with the eye of faith: the onlookers will not see the pattern, till suddenly they do.

Now the season changes. Each brightening day is made up of other days he has known. He sees a flock of chaffinches rise like flying roses from a still pool. His hawks watch dust motes as they flitter against a wall, as if the sunlight is a living thing, their prey.

Henry calls him in. ‘I must put a matter to you. It is a matter of some gravity. Come with me here into my closet and close the door.’

A window is open. Someone is singing outside. He thinks, is this where all my broken nights have led me, my unquiet dreams?

In slumbers oft for fear I quake.

For heat and cold I burn and shake.

For lack of sleep my head doth ache

What means this?

He follows the king. What can you do but, as Cicero says, live hopefully, die bravely?

He goes home to a disturbed household. Call-Me meets him, a document in his hand. ‘Sir, you had better see this at once.’

It is a transcript – a copy, let’s be blunt – of a letter from Ambassador Marillac to François. ‘Marillac says the king is about to arrest Cranmer. He is to go to the Tower, with Barnes.’

Call-Me has put a man in the ambassador’s train. ‘Well done for this,’ he says. The paper feels hot.

‘There is worse, sir. Marillac says the king means to take the Privy Seal from us and give it to Fitzwilliam. And that he will cast you down from your office as Vicegerent, and raise up Bishop Tunstall.’

He says, ‘I have just been with the king. I know he is swift to reverse his policies, but he has not had time to do this in half an hour. I have come straight from him and I bring news. It is good news for you, and I hope you will think so.’

He is about to say, go and get Rafe, but Rafe is already coming in, his eyes on Marillac’s letter. ‘Can I see the text, sir? Call-Me will not part with it.’

‘Ignore it,’ he says. ‘The ambassador sits in his lodgings concocting these fantastical tales – they only need Sexton in an ass’s head and Will Somer as a Spanish harlot.’

Rafe and Call-Me look at each other. Rafe says, ‘The original letter will be on the Dover road by now. Do you want the rider to have an accident?’

‘He could lose his missive in a puddle,’ Wriothesley suggests.

The suggestion is so mild it makes him laugh. ‘Let it go,’ he says. ‘If France gets his hopes up, so much the sweeter. He would like to see me dismissed, and the king served by boys and fools.’

‘Which are we?’ Wriothesley says.

‘Neither, you are the chosen ones. Be quiet and hear my news, you will be better for it. You know ever since I have been Master Secretary I have tried to be with the king’s person – but I am always wanted at Westminster – so you know what my life has been.’

Those days that roll from dawn to dawn. For lack of sleep my head doth ache … ‘With the king’s permission, I am going to divide my duties. I have broached it with him before, but the time is now.’

Mr Wriothesley offers to interrupt, but he continues. ‘You will divide the task. Each of you will be Master Secretary. You will split your time so that one of you is in Westminster, the other with the king. I will make machinery, so that your work passes perfectly from hand to hand.’

‘A prodigy of nature,’ Rafe says. He is astonished. ‘Two bodies with one head.’

‘One awake and one asleep,’ Wriothesley says.

‘You will both be knights. You will both be raised to the council. When Parliament meets, you will sit in the Commons, and I in the Lords.’ He slaps his hands on their shoulders. ‘You know what I have made this office, by God’s grace and the king’s. Nothing eludes it. Nothing lies beyond it. Everything starts with you. And with you, everything stops.’

He sits down. ‘Now, also –’

‘There is more?’

He holds up a hand. Sudden pleasure afflicts like sudden pain, and leaves you dizzy, numb. At such times in your life, if ever you see such times – if fortune favours you, as fortune favours the brave – you lose for a moment a sense of the firm boundaries of yourself, and become light as air. ‘I am to have Oxford’s post, Chief of the Household, Lord Great Chamberlain. His son keeps his peerage, as is natural, but as poor Essex had no heir direct, I am to have his title.’

He had thought the sands of time were running out: running through the cracks in the shining bowl of possibility he holds in his hands. ‘Now all is mended,’ he says.

Call-Me flushes. ‘I congratulate you, sir, from the bottom of my heart.’

He says, ‘The king explained to me how I was an aspect of his glory. He said, “It is not given to every ruler to look past a man’s provenance to his capacities. God gave you talents, Cromwell. And he caused you to be born at such a time and place that you could use them in my service.”’

‘And you kept your countenance?’ Rafe says.

‘I did, so please keep yours. He is right to congratulate himself. He thinks of the laws passed and the money made. If I were a prince and I had Cromwell, I would think myself Heaven’s elect.’

‘I wonder why now,’ Call-Me says. ‘In justice he might have done it long ago. But he knows it will give much offence.’

‘Not as much offence, as it gives delight,’ Rafe says. ‘Tell the household. Send to Mr Richard. Get Gregory. By God! Will Gregory be called Lord Gregory now? Will he have the title?’

Below, a roar goes up. Thomas Avery shoots in, embraces him. ‘Sir, they will all expect some increase in their wages.’

‘That is fitting, as they will be serving an earl.’

The room fills up with his people, faces shining. He draws Avery aside. ‘You remember what I told you? About my money abroad?’

Avery is surprised. ‘I do, sir.’

‘So you know what to do?’

The boy frowns. ‘Forgive me, but your lordship is talking as if your fortunes were reversed. As if you had suffered a blow of fate, instead of great promotion and honour.’

‘Find my daughter,’ he says. ‘Open a channel to her, so she can have funds.’

She can use my money, he thinks, though not my love.

‘When I left the king –’ he says. He breaks off. Truth is, he had stood on the threshold and thought, those I want to tell are dead. I want to tell my good master Frescobaldi, and my friends in his kitchen. I want to tell the boy who, as I walked upstairs to the counting house, was scrubbing the stairs. I want to tell Anselma, and my wife and children, and the girl in Rome who gave me my knife. I want to sing Scaramella: Scaramella to the war is gone, bomboretta, bomboro. I want to tell Wolsey, and get his blessing. I want to tell Walter, and see his face. News will travel to Putney: Put-an-edge-on-it has been made an earl! He wants to tell the eel boy; he wishes he were alive, so he could go down there, dig him out of his drinking den, and pound it into his skull.

At Austin Friars, the watchdogs get an extra bone. The leopard an extra carcass. Anthony the jester goes about the house, his face solemn, ringing his silver bells.

On a fine spring day, his new style is proclaimed. The new secretaries are at work. Sir Call-Me-Risley reads the patents of creation that make him an earl. Sir Rafe Sadler proclaims him Lord Chamberlain.

When Marillac next comes to court, the ambassador sees him, starts, and goes the other way. He feels some sympathy: the ambassador tells his king what he wants to hear, and though he is across the sea he must guess at the irritable requirements of a sick man. They say François cannot ride half a mile these days. They say he is dying. But he has died so many times, in popular report. Like our king, he rises again.

Henry says, ‘Ambassador Marillac declares he can no longer transact business with Cremuel present. He believes you are a spy for the Emperor.’

‘That puts us in a difficulty,’ he says.

‘Not necessarily. I can see him alone.’

He bows. It has always been the king’s belief that prince speaks to prince, and common men crouch just within earshot, ready to scurry at command. Henry says, ‘We must mollify François. If he lives, he may make a new treaty with me. And the Emperor, too, I see we must begin to conciliate him.’

He hears the message. Work both sides of the bank, Cromwell. As we always have.

Sometimes, he says to Wriothesley, the best thing you can do is to pick up your papers and get yourself out.

From the French court, no reaction to his promotion: or none polite enough for the record. From the Imperial court, an equal silence. But congratulations from Eustache Chapuys, who waits in Flanders for Charles to send him back as ambassador: which he will do, Chapuys says, as soon as the rift with England is mended.

A rumour has taken hold in the city that Anna will be crowned at Whit. He does not counter it. It will spread abroad, and tend to calm. Dr Harst visits the queen, but what he draws from her is a mystery. Harst is useless, always pestering him with incomprehensible requests about protocol. He, the Earl of Essex, is busy, because Parliament will open and he has packed the schedule with legislation. The king expects him to raise taxes. The money from abbey lands is slow to come in; as he once had to explain to the cardinal, it is delicate work, to turn real property into hard cash.

He speaks in the Lords, not about taxes, but about God: setting forth the king’s intent, which is harmony. He feels he has never spoken so well, nor said so little.

After the first session, Master Secretary Rafe comes to him: ‘Richard Riche is not content. He thinks, with so many changes, he should have been promoted.’

To what? What better thing could a man be, than Master of Augmentations? Riche has his estate in Essex. He has received Bartholomew, one of the greatest of London priories. But Rafe says, ‘He has conceived a grudge, sir. Because you do not love him as you love Thomas Wyatt.’

‘Wyatt will soon be home,’ he says. It is perverse of Riche to raise a comparison. ‘It just shows …’ he says to Rafe; but he lets his sentence trail. It shows how unaccountable men are, what they harbour in their souls: which by no means shows on their faces.

Rafe says, ‘You remember your neighbour Stow? When he came with a complaint, saying you had stolen part of his garden?’

‘There was no trespass. Stow had his fence in the wrong place.’

‘We know that at Austin Friars. You said, I know where my boundaries are. But Stow went through the town bad-mouthing you. His family complains and everybody believes them.’

He reads the lesson that Rafe intends. He has stolen nothing from the Earl of Oxford’s family. But the Veres think they own the chamberlain’s post by long continuance in it, and they intended to hold it while the world endures.

When he meets Gardiner, the bishop says, ‘My congratulations, Cromwell.’

‘Essex,’ he says. ‘I am Thomas Essex now.’

‘You confounded the French,’ Gardiner says. ‘They were sure the Cleves debacle had finished you. And if not Cleves, then the heretics in Calais, claiming you for their own. Do you know there was a soothsayer called Calchas, who survived his predicted hour of death, and died of laughing?’

‘But then there was the poet Petrarch. He lay as one dead for the best part of a day. His people were praying for his soul. But just before the burial party was due, he sat up – and then he lived another thirty years. Thirty years, Stephen.’

Parliament assembles and the court is filling up, the biggest court in years. He sees Jane Rochford in conversation with Norfolk. They look earnest; her kinsman is showing her some deference, by God.

He traps her later, his tone teasing. ‘What was Uncle Norfolk telling you?’

‘Things convenient for me to know.’

She swings away from him, haughty, angry: useless. He thinks, I’ve lost her. When did that happen?

His son’s wife comes to him; ‘I bring news of needlework. I know your lordship is interested.’

He tilts his head: I’m listening.

‘I was bidden to do a piece of work. One of the maids could have done it, but it was handed to me out of malice. It was something of Jane’s. Jane the queen, my sister, it was her girdle book, her little prayers. I was told, take this and pick the initials out. I said, I will not do it. I am Mistress Cromwell, not some servant.’

‘Lady Cromwell,’ he reminds her.

‘I should have said so, should I not? I forgot. My title is too new.’

She is on the brink of angry tears, and he would like to put his arms around her, but better not. Bess should not be stitching, unstitching; she could run a field camp, or direct a siege.

‘The next thing I see, Katherine Howard is wearing it at her waist. It is not the first gift she has had, that belonged to some lady better than she will ever be. The king wants to have her in his bed, to maul her about and see if he can do aught. And her people will say to her, do not gratify him, do not give way, do not so much as glance in his direction. I know.’ Her face is set. ‘We Seymours did it ourselves. We cannot complain – though we do. The Howards believe he might marry her. And who is to say he will not?’

He feels weary. ‘What does Anna say? She must know.’ He has seen her demeanour: sullen, listless. ‘She should give the king no cause to complain. If I were to advise her –’

‘But you do not. You don’t go near her.’

If he were to counsel Anna, it would be to patience. The dowager Katherine won the admiration of all, when she sat smiling by the king she supposed her husband, through hours of court ceremonies, hours which stretched into years. Never was she seen with tears on her cheeks, or an angry frown.

‘Yes,’ Bess says, ‘Katherine was a great pattern for womanhood. She died alone and friendless, did she not?’

On May Day, Richard Cromwell is to fight in the tournament at Greenwich, scheduled to fill five days with combat, spectacle and public rejoicing. He rides for the challengers, called the Gentlemen of England: among his team-mates, the gallant and handsome Thomas Seymour, and among his foes, the young Earl of Surrey, making his public debut in the lists.

Gregory no doubt will fight next year. For now he is a practice opponent. He has not Richard’s weight, but he has style and no fear, the best armour, the best horseflesh.

‘Tom Culpeper,’ Gregory explains. ‘We are studying what he will do. He is the king’s favourite, he has money laid on him. Richard is drawn against him in the foot combat. He does not come against him in the joust.’

The foot combat is the most ruthless of all the tournament games. It is ad hominem. There is no place to hide.

‘A likely young man,’ he says. ‘He is handsome.’

‘Not when I’ve finished with him,’ Richard says.

Both Suffolk and Norfolk are present when the contests open, and they greet each other with their usual empty civility. Suffolk would rise from the dead, he declares, to be at such an occasion, because in his day he held the palm: myself and the king, he says, always Harry and me. Gods, we were, in our time.

If you sit close to the king, under the canopy with the arms of England and France, you feel his body rigid with tension, his muscles jumping as if he were himself in the saddle. Henry sees, notes, scores every move, and at the end of a bout he drops back in his chair, releasing his breath as the winner and loser are led away, their lathered horses sidestepping and curvetting, their helmets off to acknowledge the crowd.

Young Surrey rides seven times: he has no special success, but he is not unhorsed either. Norfolk, he suspects, prefers proper fighting. The Howard entourage make a good deal of noise, but provided a show is made, and the family honour is upheld, the duke seems little interested in the finer points. He is not one to pine for old times, when it comes to a contest of arms; given his choice, he would haul up a cannon, and blast the foe to Jerusalem.

Between the contests musicians play. They sing ‘England be Glad’, their voices lost in the open air. Then they play the Bear Dance, and Montard Brawle, which makes the ladies jump in their seats and beat time, and all those who are not in armour clap their hands. The queen is sedate, her hands folded, but she watches all that passes with a wide and interested gaze; she looks to the king for a signal for when to applaud and when to despond.

He, Essex, goes in and out, as messengers call on him. ‘News from Ireland,’ he says briefly to the king. While the silk pennants flutter and the trumpets call, he is crawling through bog and brush, after the O’Connors, the O’Neills, the Kavanaghs and the Breens: the wreckers, burners and despoilers, ready to open their ports to Pole’s ships.

When Richard makes his first run, his lance lifts his opponent clean out of the saddle. It is the cleanest strike seen in years. You have seen a vulgar boy plunge his knife into a loaf, and wave it around on the point? That is how the enemy is hoisted, flying into the air while his horse carries on without him. You hardly hear him hit the ground because the courtiers are yelling like drunks at a bear-baiting.

Richard collects his horse and turns him. His grooms rush to the end of the barrier to make sure he wheels wide of the tilt. Richard shows the crowd his mailed glove, empty, as if they did not know his lance was splintered. Henry is on his feet, a blaze of gold. He is beside himself, laughing and crying. They are waving Richard back to the king, but through the narrow slit in his helmet most probably he cannot see the signal; now a squire takes his bridle, and his mount flecked with lather steps up, snorting, harness ringing. The king takes a diamond from his finger: he is mouthing something; Richard’s mailed arm reaches out.

Next day is Sunday. Richard Cromwell kneels, and rises Sir Richard. Henry kisses him. He says, ‘Richard, you are my diamond.’

On 3 May the challengers and the answerers fight on horseback, with rebated swords. Fitzwilliam, Lord Admiral, sits beside him and talks below the clatter. ‘The word from the border is that the Scots are gathering a fleet. Their ambassador says James plans to sail to France to visit his kin. But our agents say he is bound for Ireland.’

He glances across at Norfolk. ‘A pity the Scot does not come by land. My lord is always looking to fight his father’s battles over again. He is short of glory these days.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘I want twenty ships. I must be at the Irish coast before James, to chase him back to the open sea.’

He nods. ‘I will see you supplied.’

A great roar rises from the crowd: another knight spilled from his saddle to the green and springy ground, crunching in his weight of mail and tumbling arse-over-pate. The winner removes his helmet: the spectators applaud: Cromwell! they shout. Fitzwilliam says abruptly, ‘You are popular in this arena.’

‘It’s my nephew they are shouting for. I should send Richard to the council in my stead, to explain what I have spent.’

The bills are coming in for the conveyance of the queen by land and sea. Her thirteen trumpeters alone have cost us near a hundred pounds. Just this morning he had a chit for more than a hundred and forty pounds for work on the king’s tomb – which is unfair, considering that Henry is never going to die. He complains, ‘It has cost us two thousand marks to honour the Duke of Bavaria as we waved him goodbye.’

The Lord Admiral says, ‘Surely that would be a sound investment for you? Even if you found it from your own purse.’

He does not ask Fitz to enlarge on what he means. He is thinking about the tomb: one hundred and forty-two pounds, eleven shillings and tenpence. Have you ever seen the Wound Man, in a surgeons’ manual? There is a caltrop beneath his foot, a spear through his calf, and between his ribs an arrow, the shaft snapped. There is a cleaver in his shoulder, a sword in his gut, a dagger through his eye. He is bleeding money. Just as well he has persuaded Parliament into a two-year subsidy for the king. It will not be popular in the country. But there are forts to build, as well as ships to fit. He never believed in the amity between François and the Emperor, but he does believe they would put aside their quarrels for an immediate object: the invasion of England. He says to Fitz, ‘They will come in by Ireland if they can, either one of them. Conciliate them, the king says; but he is a fool if he believes anything they say.’

‘I’ll tell him you said so, shall I?’

Down below, the arms of Cromwell snap in the breeze. For Richard, these are the greatest days of his life. More than his marriage, the birth of his sons, his grants of lands, his commissions under the king; more than his prosperity, his security, are these moments when muscles and bone and the conqueror’s eye are indefeasible; when the heart leaps and the sight dazzles and time seems to stretch on all sides and cushion you like a snowfield, like a feather bed. He thinks of Brother Frisby, tumbled in the snow at Launde, shining like a seraph.

Richard is a hard-headed man. He knows this way of knocking a man over is arcane, expensive, obsolete. But he wants to rise in this world, as Cromwells do. His grandsire was a Tudor archer. His father plied the law. Now he is a knight of the realm. Surrey’s expression, beneath his helm, can only be inferred.

Fitz says, ‘Did you ever don helm and harness, my lord?’

By Christ no, he thinks. We pikemen were too poor for mail. We went in boiled leather which we hardened by prayer. We wore other men’s boots.

Blowing in from the coast, Wyatt does not even sit down before he says, ‘Bonner is Bishop of London? You think that serves you?’

‘He is. I did. I doubt him now.’

Bonner is a plump pink man; he looks foolish, but his brain is as sharp as a sharpened nail. He is back from France, installed in his see, and already it seems he may be an ingrate, or double. He, Essex, is not easy to mislead, but these days men are friends at the gate and foes at the door. ‘I thought he was one of us. Perhaps he’s everybody’s. But still,’ he says, ‘Bonner knows things. About Gardiner, his practices in France.’

‘You should not promote a man because he hates Gardiner. That is no safe way.’ Wyatt walks about. ‘I hear you dined.’

‘I dined. Stephen looked as if he were swallowing tadpoles.’

‘You have had Suffolk here, your people say. Be warned. He will not stand with you if you need a friend.’

‘You and Brandon have been at odds for ten years. And I have forgotten why.’

‘So have I. So has he. It does not mean we can make peace.’

‘Go home to Bess Darrell,’ he says. ‘Go down to Allington and enjoy the summer. Bess has helped me. And I am now able to help you in your turn.’

‘You owe me nothing,’ Wyatt says. ‘The obligation is all the other way. I have been in agony, as to what you would think of me. I obeyed my instructions. Make a breach, you said, tear François and the Emperor apart. I have done it, but I fear I have not helped you.’

‘Their enmities were so old, so ingrained,’ he says, ‘that you should not give yourself all the credit. They only reverted to the pattern they knew. Anyway, you followed your instructions, what else could you do? Be assured, it is no detriment to me.’

‘Except you stand to lose your queen.’

So Wyatt knows everything. The waves of the Narrow Sea rustle like sheets, whispering through Europe the news of Henry’s incapacity. ‘It will be a poor game without her, it’s true.’

Wriothesley comes in. ‘Wyatt? I thought it was you.’ They embrace, comrades-in-arms. ‘You can explain to us what is happening here.’

‘But I have been out of the realm,’ Wyatt says.

‘That does not weigh. In it, out of it, we neither walk on the earth nor swim nor fly, we do not know which element we dwell in. Summer is coming, but the king rains and shines like April. Men change their religion as they change their coats. The council makes a resolution and next minute forgets it. We write letters and the words expunge. We are playing chess in the dark.’

‘On a board made of jelly,’ he says.

‘With chessmen of butter.’

Wyatt says, ‘Your images upheave me.’

‘Then make us better ones, dear heart,’ Wriothesley says.

When they embraced, he saw Call-Me’s eyes over Wyatt’s shoulder. They were like Walter’s eyes, one day when he had burned himself in the forge. He had walked away, silent, to plunge his arm in water: he uttered nothing, neither oath nor self-reproof, but sweat started out on his forehead, and his legs buckled.

This year, business tears him away from the feast. The Lord Deputy of Ireland must be replaced, and the need is urgent. It is four or five years since he backed Leonard Grey for the post: well, there again he was mistaken. There are councillors who say the only way forward is to depopulate the island and resettle it with Englishmen. But, he thinks, the Irish would shrink into the interior, and hide in holes where rats could not live.

He says to Audley, ‘There are rumours that Pole’s army has landed in Galway. Or else in Limerick. I doubt Reynold could tell them apart, or say if he was in Ireland or the Land of Nod. If his past wanderings are any guide, he will try to invade us by way of Madrid.’

Audley looks at him: how can you make a joke? He is solemnity personified, now he has been elected to the Garter, and has a chain and a new George shining on his breast.

When Lord Lisle got a permit to leave Calais for the Garter feast, he thought it a mark of favour. He is surprised to be ordered before the council, and questioned. It is an open secret that members of his household have quit their posts and made their way to Rome. The boy Mathew, among others, has brought home fat files of evidence. But the Lord Privy Seal has not got what he wants – one damning document, to link the Lord Deputy to Pole.

Rafe says, ‘At this point we usually arrest Francis Bryan, do we not? When we cannot make the answers fit the questions?’

He smiles. Bryan knows all about Calais, it is true. He could help bring Lisle down, maybe also the ambassador Valloppe. But who will believe Francis? The Vicar of Hell has drained too many cups. He has played too many hands, he has given too much offence: if you think in vino veritas, look at Francis. Yet he knows everybody’s secrets, and appears to be everybody’s cousin. He has friends in every treasury, watchmen at every port.

Rafe shrugs, as if trying to shift an ill-balanced load. We servants of the king must get used to games we cannot win but fight to an exhausted draw, their rules unexplained. Our instructions are full of snares and traps, which mean as we gain we lose. We do not know how to proceed from minute to minute, yet somehow we do, and another night falls on us in Greenwich, at Hampton Court, at Whitehall.

The king wonders aloud, what shall we do when knights of the Garter are found to be traitors – men like Nicholas Carew? Certainly their names should be stricken from the volumes that contain the history of the order. But will that not mar the beauty of the pages?

The decision is that the disgraced name should remain. But the words ‘VAH! PRODITUR’ should be written in the margin, so the man is branded for ever.

Vah! He thinks of Gardiner, trying to cough up his tadpoles: by now his evil mind has swollen them, he will have to spew them as frogs. ‘The man he needs is St Aelred,’ Gregory says. ‘When the saint met with a swollen man clutching his belly, Aelred at once stuffed his fingers down the patient’s throat; he vomited, with his frogs, seven pints of bile.’

He says to his son, ‘I have some news for you. It is a blow, I must confess.’

In making him earl, the king has granted twenty-four manors in Essex, besides holdings in other counties. But in return he wants the manor of Wimbledon, and the house at Mortlake.

Gregory blinks. ‘Why?’

‘You know he cannot ride so far now. He wants to join one great park to another, so he can move west of London and still be on his own ground. I will show you the map. You will see the sense in it.’

He does not open his account books to work out how much money he has spent on his Mortlake house. He thought it would be his for life.

Gregory says, ‘You won’t miss your old haunts, surely?’

Since he was a child Gregory has moved in the orbit of princes. Putney’s nothing to him, those fields that Walter scrabbled for, the sheep-runs for which he fought his neighbours.

Gregory says, ‘Take heart, my lord father. Not only was Aelred good for stomach pains, he was sovereign for broken bones. He made the dumb to speak.’

He asks, ‘What did they say?’

When he judges the time is right, he sends men for Lisle: ten at night, to rouse him from his bed and take him to the Tower. He will order Bishop Sampson moved there too. It will be convenient to get their confessions together, as the facts are so enmeshed. He does not need the bishop arraigned, just in ward, out of the council and out of the pulpit. Cranmer will take the vacant place in the rota at Paul’s: it is time the lovers of scripture had their say. The other bishops should take warning by Sampson’s arrest. He has five names on his list. He lets that fact be known. Which names they are, he holds back.

Lisle, too, can be held till the evidence fits. In Calais he can be replaced with a man more active and competent. He thinks about Wyatt: why not? The French are frightened of Monsieur Hoyet. Though, as someone says, they hardly fear him as much as the English do.

The day after Lisle’s arrest, the man John Husee waits for him at dawn, to implore. He says to him, ‘Keep yourself out of this, Husee. You have been a good servant and deserve a better master.’

Honor Lisle is still in Calais. Mr Wriothesley says, ‘On consideration, sir, we should have secured her with her husband; of the two, she is the more papistical.’

‘She can be held at home,’ he says. ‘Arrange it, would you?’ He sees, in an instant and for the first time: I am not ruthless enough for Sir Thomas Wriothesley.

Now he tells Husee, ‘Lady Lisle were better, if she has letters, to surrender them rather than burn them. I am adept at construing the ashes.’

After the king gives permission for his uncle’s arrest, he retires to prayer. But he will not see Lord Lisle, for all his begging. The news has come from Scotland that his new wife has given King James a son. ‘I could have married that lady,’ the king says. ‘But my councillors were too slow to act, and unwilling.’

In the noble city of Ghent, the Emperor sits in a hall draped in black, dealing out fates. He strips the guilds of their privileges, levies a fine, impounds weapons and knocks down part of the walls as well as the principal abbey, announcing that he will build a fortress garrisoned with Spanish troops. He parades the chief citizens barefoot, in the smocks of penitents, nooses around their necks. The executions have gone on for a month.

In times past you have thought, if you have to get into bed with Charles or François, Charles is the less diseased. But now who can choose: two loathly partners, sweating and seeping? ‘They call our king a killer,’ he tells Brandon, ‘but when I compare –’

‘By God, they have gall!’ says the duke. ‘With all of his troubles with men and women both, with traitors and rebels and councillors false, I call him an anointed saint.’

Norfolk and Gardiner visit each other as they did before the duke went to France. His informants say, ‘Norfolk has the girl Katherine with him. At Gardiner’s house they played a masque. It was Magnificence. Sir, they played it against you.’

It is an old thing of Skelton’s, written against Wolsey in his time. When carters become courtiers, is the burden of it: how the upstart vaunts, how he sins, how the commonwealth is abused. The players are Collusion and Abusion, Folly and Mischief, and Magnificence himself, who proclaims:

‘I reign in my robes, I rule as me list,

I drive down these dastards with a dint of my fist.’

But at length Magnificence is brought low, he is beaten and shamed, spoiled of all he has and plunged into poverty. Enter Despair, tempting him to make an end by stabbing or hanging himself, the sorriest knave that ever was damned.

Just in time comes Good Hope, and saves him.

But if you think your audience would prefer it, there is always the choice to end the play early, leaving Magnificence in the dust.

Rafe says, ‘Call-Me was there. At Gardiner’s masque.’

‘Was he?’ He is disturbed. ‘Looking after our interests, I am sure.’

Whispers have come from Gardiner’s private office. The bishop has set his people to look into Call-Me’s finances. They share territory in Hampshire; their business cannot help but be entangled, and if there is sharp practice, it could not long be hidden from the bishop. He says, ‘I wish Call-Me would come to me, and let us look at the figures together.’

Sometimes transactions have holes in them. Sometimes columns fail to tally. To mend the matter, it is possible to be ingenious, without being dishonest.

He says, ‘If Gardiner sends for Call-Me, he has no choice but to answer. If something is alleged against him he must hear what it is.’

He thinks, Wriothesley will accuse me of teaching him covetousness. I would have taught him accountancy, if he had ever sat still to listen. He says to Rafe, ‘Perhaps there is a deal to be done. Gardiner has much to hide himself, if someone cared to spy it out.’

After the evening of the masque, Katherine Howard does not return to her duties at court. The queen’s people report that Anna is relieved to see her go. But Anna does not know our history, or she would realise this bodes her no good. The maid has been re-installed at Lambeth, in her family’s house, but now she has maids of her own and is served with deference by those who hope she will carry them to high fortune. In the evenings, the king’s barge crosses the water. His minstrels play ‘The Jester’s Dance’, and ‘La Manfredina’ and ‘My Lord and Lady Depart’. Henry stays with her till late, rowing back after sunset, the drums and flutes silent.

He thinks of the surgeons, their bloody book. Carved and pierced and sliced, Wound Man stands upright on the page. He holds out his arms, one half-severed at the wrist: ‘Come on, come on, what else have you got?’

He has kept his word to the king: a tractable Parliament has given the treasury what it needs. Before summer it will disperse, without a day appointed to meet again. Though he, Essex, has shed his duties as Secretary, he seems more pressed than ever, preparing for invisible dangers. If Pole is really heading to Ireland, his sails are not seen. Lord Admiral Fitzwilliam leaves his captains on watch, and returns to take his place in council.

The fact that Lord Lisle is in the Tower does not prevent him hurling accusations. The only way to stop him would be to stop asking questions. He insists that Lord Cromwell has acted as patron of all heretics in Calais these seven years past, circumventing justice and holding in contempt the king’s commands.

Lisle will not be specific, when and where and who. In his position, you would fling mud and hope it would stick. His wife is now under house arrest. He, Essex, is unsurprised to hear that the Lisles have not paid their household servants for two and a half years.

6 June, the king calls him in. ‘My lord, I hear you have been assailed.’

Assailed? ‘I am used to that.’

‘Insulted openly,’ the king says, ‘at the performance of a masque. But I have let it be known, that those who denigrate Cromwell, denigrate their king. It is for me, no one else, to reprove or reward my servants.’

They have not spoken – the king and his chief councillor – about the Duke of Norfolk’s niece. Now the king allows himself one angry outburst. ‘I pay a compliment to some sweet little fool, and the world says I am going to wed her. What have you done to counter this?’

He says, ‘It is Norfolk’s part to counter it. Besides, the world is answered, surely. Your Majesty cannot marry. He has a wife.’

Henry says, ‘Wilhelm was in Ghent. He saw the Emperor. They have reached some accommodation. Or else – I know not which – they have reached some impasse.’

Something is needling Henry, beyond the matter at hand, making him querulous, edgy. I will know by and by, he thinks, I shall not avoid knowing. He says, ‘We are not yet informed what has passed in Ghent. And I would not trust the first information. I never do.’

‘Well, it is you who gets it,’ Henry snaps. ‘I know letters come to you, that should come to me. I am obliged to send to your house, and be a suitor for knowledge of my own affairs. Surely someone can tell us whether Cleves and the Emperor have parted friends? For if they have not, then it signals war. It is no good to go to Parliament and get me the subsidy, my lord, if it is spent at once, on a war I do not want, for a man who uses me ill –’

‘I do not believe Wilhelm will go to war.’

‘Oh? Then you think he is making terms with the Emperor? Behind my back? I have long suspected Cleves is not honest. He wants to play me and the Emperor both. He wants the surety of my troops behind him, so he can stand up and make demands of Charles. He wants Charles to give him the Duchess Christina, and he will try to keep Guelders too.’

‘A bold scheme,’ he says, ‘but he might contrive it. Would you not do the same?’

‘Perhaps if I had no conscience,’ Henry says, ‘and no fear. No sense of duty owed. Perhaps if this were twenty years back. Your man Machiavelli claims that fortune favours the young.’

‘He isn’t my man.’

‘No? Then who is?’

‘You were seen in the mirror of princes, before I ever showed my face. You lack no art or craft to rule.’

‘And yet,’ Henry says, ‘you break my heart. You claim, all I think and do is for you, sir. But you refuse to extricate me from this unholy, unsanctified misalliance. You would leave me cursed – without hope of further offspring, allied to heresy, and exposed to the peril and expense of war.’

‘Excuse me,’ he says. He walks across the gallery, to where the sunlight floods in, and hides from him the sight of a knot of courtiers, staring at him from a distance. He thinks, I am walking above the clouds.

He turns. ‘Your Majesty keeps Christina’s portrait behind a curtain.’

‘I could have had her,’ Henry says, ‘if you had pleased. Nothing would satisfy Cromwell, but I must wed a Lutheran’s sister.’

‘Your Majesty knows, I think, that Duke Wilhelm is not a Lutheran. Like your Majesty, he walks his own path, a guiding light to his people.’

The king begins to speak – then hesitates, abdicating from his own thoughts. When he continues, it is lightly, as if he is trying out a joke. ‘Norfolk has asked me, how much was Cromwell paid, to arrange the Cleves match?’

‘He knows where I get my income, I have no doubt. As you do, sir.’

Still that buoyancy in Henry’s voice: ‘I told you, nothing is secret from me. Norfolk says, “And besides what he received to make the match, what is he paid to arrange the continuance?” It must be a huge sum, Norfolk thinks, for you to run against my displeasure, ever since the turn of the year.’

He must pick his words carefully: make no promises he cannot keep. ‘I will do what I can, but if you repudiate the queen, I cannot avert evil consequences.’

‘Are you threatening me?’ Henry asks.

‘God forbid.’

‘He does.’

The king turns away and stares at the wall. As if he has become entranced by the panelling, absorbed into the linenfold.

Next day he is not due to see the king. But he half-expects some message. Henry loves to run you about the countryside, cries of ‘Urgent, Urgent,’ sounding in your ears, like the cries of hounds on the scent.

A letter comes. He reads and digests it: the king’s orders. He files it. He waits to be summoned: nothing. He pulls the letter out of his files, and gives it to Wriothesley: he thinks, Call-Me will pull it out anyway, his curiosity will get the better of him, and if he is reporting to Gardiner – well, let him. These next few days, we must try conclusions.

Wriothesley says, the letter in his hand, ‘The king would not elevate you, sir, only to destroy you. And he would not make these requests, if he did not mean you to see them through.’

The Book Called Henry: never say what he will not do. He sits down. ‘I understand he wishes a resolution with the queen’s grace. But my difficulty is, I must break it to the council as news, that the marriage is not consummated. I can tell Fitzwilliam, the king says. And one or two others if I must. Whereas everybody knows already. They know the thing failed at the outset.’

He passes a hand across his face. His Irish files lie untouched. It is supper time, and he does not want his supper, and Secretary Wriothesley looks as if he has no appetite either. Which is a pity, as Wyatt has sent early strawberries from Kent.

Call-Me says, ‘You can work with the pre-contract, sir. You have done more difficult things. We would have to find a pension for the lady. And whatever the brother demands, by way of recompense. Though as she is still a maid, Cleves may find her another husband, and that would be a relief to our exchequer.’

He thinks, Anna may feel she has had enough of men. His fingers inside her. C’est tout.

‘To save the king’s face,’ Call-Me says, ‘we will mention his scruples. The fear that the lady might be unfree, and contracted to Lorraine, weighed so heavy on the king’s mind, that he determined to leave her intact, till the matter should be resolved. Which it has not –’

‘But why should I attempt –?’ he says

‘– and by now the king believes, as any man would, that the councillors of Cleves deliberately delay –’

‘– why should I? If Anna goes, in comes Norfolk with his little drab on his arm. He thought he could rule through his other niece, but Anne knocked him back. This one will be tractable, you can tell by looking at her. Norfolk believes he can put me out of the council, and he and his new friend Gardiner will lead us back to Rome. But I won’t go, Call-Me. I’ll fight. And when you see Stephen again, you can tell him so from me.’

He sees Wriothesley shrink, like a dog under the whip. He is whimpering beneath his burden of knowledge, as all the king’s creatures do.

That night he dreams he is at Whitehall, on the spiral stair that leads to the cockpit. Here below ground the gamecocks circle, red birds and white, their feathers raised into ruffs. Here they sport, rising with a flurry of wings into the air, talons locked: flailing with steel spurs, pecking at eyes, gouging breasts and ripping wings. Here one dies, while the spectators roar and stamp; spattered with blood, they slap palms and pay their debts. The dead cock is raked from the sand and thrown to a cur.

In the morning he is at Westminster, where he attends the sitting of the Lords. He dines. At three in the afternoon he is making his way to the council chamber, Audley at his side, Fitzwilliam behind him. Norfolk flitters through the sunlight, either before or behind, conversing with minions who have their swords at their sides.

It is a boisterous day, and as they cross the court the wind takes his hat off. He grabs at it, but it is gone, bowling in the direction of the river.

He looks around the party, and the nape of his neck bristles. The councillors make no move to uncover. They continue walking. He strides out as if to shake them off, but they bunch around him, matching their pace to his.

‘An ill wind,’ he says, ‘to take off my hat, and leave yours.’ He remembers Wolf Hall, the still evening, Henry’s arm around his shoulders. The interior of the house opened before them; musicians played the king’s song, ‘If love now reigned’, and together they strolled in for their supper.

Now the sunlight picks out a silver thread in the stuff of Lord Audley’s jacket. It dapples the Lord Admiral’s coat of blue brocade. It makes a red flicker at the corner of his eye and he puts his hand to his chest, over his heart, but his knife is not there: only silk, linen, skin. Rafe was right, of course. When you need it you can’t use it.

From below, a tug at his sleeve. ‘You lost this, my lord Essex?’

The little lad is puffed with pride: at the hat retrieval, and at knowing which lord is which. He reaches for a coin, looks into the upturned face. ‘Don’t I know you? You used to bring rushes to York Place.’

‘Bless you,’ the boy says, ‘that would be my brother Charles. I am George, I am as like to him as my mother could form me. It’s easy to mistake us and many do it. But Charles –’ He reaches up, to show the size his brother is now.

‘He must be,’ he says. When Charles carried rushes, Anne Boleyn was a mere marquise: and because he was on his way to her lair, Charles had asked him, ‘Have you a holy medal, to protect you?’

He says, ‘Commend me to your brother. I hope he thrives? And you too, master. Thank you for my hat.’

He thinks he sees Stephen Gardiner, a black shape against rosy brick. Where are the secretaries, he thinks, one or both should attend … His throat is dry. His heart is shaking. His body knows, and his head is catching up; meanwhile, we are bound for a council meeting.

They have passed undercover. The summer day recedes. He thinks, I have parted with my last supporter there: George whooping across the close, spinning his reward in the air. He cannot see Riche. He thinks, Wyatt told me Charles Brandon would not help me, and he cannot if he would, he is not here. But Norfolk has stolen in behind him. Flodden Norfolk, a father named after a battle: how do you like that, Cromwell?

He thinks, my father Walter would not have left his knife at home. If my father were here, I would not be afraid. But the enemy would. If Walter were here, they would be crouching under the council board, pissing themselves.

He looks around. ‘Is my lord archbishop on his way?’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘We do not expect him.’

Gardiner has followed them in. He is blocking the door. ‘What’s this, Winchester?’ he says. ‘Are you back on the council?’

‘Imminently,’ Gardiner says.

‘We’ll see how long that lasts, shall we? Anyone take a bet?’ He sits. ‘Our numbers are down. But shall we begin?’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘We do not sit down with traitors.’

He is ready for them – on his feet, his jaw set, his eyes narrowed, his breath short. Norfolk says, ‘I will tear out your heart and stuff it in your mouth.’ The clerks, their folios held across their chests, have stepped back to let the king’s halberdiers fill the room. The councillors fall on him. Like pack animals they yelp and snarl, they grunt and flail. Fitzwilliam is trying to pull his Garter badge from his coat. He bats him away, gives Norfolk a shove that knocks him into the table. But Fitzwilliam comes back. They tug, kick, haul. He is barged and buffeted, his gold chain is off, and he puts his head down, he puts his fists up, he lands a blow, and he is roaring, he is convulsed with rage, he does not know what he says, nor cares: and then it is over. They have taken the chain and the George. Someone has swept his papers from the board.

William Kingston is a big man and the councillors fall back for him. ‘My lord? You must come with these guards.’ He speaks like a man with perfect faith. ‘You will walk with me advisedly. I will hold fast by your side and lead you through the crowd.’

There is only one place Kingston leads you. At the sight of Kingston with a warrant, the lord cardinal’s great heart failed him. His legs would not hold him up, and he sat down on a chest; he made his lament and said his prayers.

In the doorway, Gardiner says, ‘Adieu, Cromwell.’

He stops. ‘Give me my title.’

‘You have no title. It’s gone, Cromwell. You are no more than God made you. May He take you to His mercy.’

The sunlight whites out the spectators. The councillors surge out after him. Evidently they will do no business; or they regard it as done.

He thinks, the only man who could help me now is the man who shot Packington. He might not succeed with so many targets. Where would I direct his aim?

There is a boat waiting for him. It has been organised so neatly you would think he had done it himself. A two-minute brawl, he thinks, but they must have reckoned on that. Perhaps somebody gets a fist in his face – but there are so many against one. They know the end of it all. They dust themselves off, they bundle me out.

Today is 10 June. It was three in the afternoon when he crossed the court and lost his hat. It is not yet four. There are hours of daylight left. He says to Kingston, ‘My lord archbishop is not arrested?’

‘I have had no such order,’ Kingston says brusquely; then adds, ‘Be easy in your mind about that.’

‘Gregory?’

‘I saw your son in the Commons, an hour ago. I have no orders there.’

‘And Sir Rafe?’ He is careful about titles today.

‘It is possible he was waylaid, to keep him from the meeting. But again, I have no orders about Master Secretary.’

He does not ask, what about Wriothesley? He says, ‘Will you send for someone from my household, to wait on me till I am released?’

Kingston says, ‘It is not our custom to leave a gentleman without a servant. Give us a name and he will be fetched.’

‘Send to Austin Friars, and ask for Christophe.’

He thinks, they have bruised me, but it will not hurt until tomorrow. The water rocks beneath them, cerulean blue. The Tower is in sight. The flint sparkles like sunlight on the sea.