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There are many precedents, the cardinal says, that can help the king in his current concerns. King Louis XII was allowed to set aside his first wife. Nearer home, his own sister Margaret, who had first married the King of Scotland, divorced her second husband and remarried. And the king’s great friend Charles Brandon, who is now married to his youngest sister Mary, had an earlier alliance put aside in circumstances that hardly bear inquiry.
But set against that, the fact that the church is not in the business of breaking up established marriages or bastardising children. If the dispensation was technically defective, or in any other way defective, why can it not be mended with a new one? So Pope Clement may think, Wolsey says.
When he says this, the king shouts. He can shrug that off, the shouting; one grows accustomed, and he watches how the cardinal behaves, as the storm breaks over his head; half-smiling, civil, regretful, he waits for the calm that succeeds it. But Wolsey is becoming uneasy, waiting for Boleyn’s daughter – not the easy armful, but the younger girl, the flat-chested one – to drop her coy negotiations and please the king. If she would do this, the king would take an easier view of life and talk less about his conscience; after all, how could he, in the middle of an amour? But some people suggest that she is bargaining with the king; some say that she wants to be the new wife; which is laughable, Wolsey says, but then the king is infatuated, so perhaps he doesn’t demur, not to her face. He has drawn the cardinal’s attention to the emerald ring Lady Anne now wears, and has told him the provenance and the price. The cardinal looked shocked.
After the Harry Percy debacle, the cardinal had got Anne sent down to her family house at Hever, but she had insinuated herself back to court somehow, among the queen’s ladies, and now he never knows where she’ll be, and whether Henry will disappear from his grasp because he’s chasing her across country. He thinks of calling in her father, Sir Thomas, and telling him off again, but – even without mentioning the old rumour about Henry and Lady Boleyn – how can you explain to a man that as his first daughter was a whore, so his second one should be too: insinuating that it’s some sort of family business he puts them into?
‘Boleyn is not rich,’ he says. ‘I’d get him in. Cost it out for him. The credit side. The debit side.’
‘Ah yes,’ the cardinal says, ‘but you are the master of practical solutions, whereas I, as a churchman, have to be careful not actively to recommend that my monarch embark on a studied course of adultery.’ He moves the quills around on his desk, shuffles some papers. ‘Thomas, if you are ever … How shall I put it?’
He cannot imagine what the cardinal might say next.
‘If you are ever close to the king, if you should find, perhaps after I am gone …’ It’s not easy to speak of non-existence, even if you’ve already commissioned your tomb. Wolsey cannot imagine a world without Wolsey. ‘Ah well. You know I would prefer you to his service, and never hold you back, but the difficulty is …’
Putney, he means. It is the stark fact. And since he’s not a churchman, there are no ecclesiastical titles to soften it, as they have softened the stark fact of Ipswich.
‘I wonder,’ Wolsey says, ‘would you have patience with our sovereign lord? When it is midnight and he is up drinking and giggling with Brandon, or singing, and the day’s papers not yet signed, and when you press him he says, I’m for my bed now, we’re hunting tomorrow … If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure-loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom.’
The idea that he or anyone else might come to have Wolsey’s hold over the king is about as likely as Anne Cromwell becoming Lord Mayor. But he doesn’t altogether discount it. One has heard of Jeanne d’Arc; and it doesn’t have to end in flames.
He goes home and tells Liz about the fighting dogs. She also thinks it strikingly apt. He doesn’t tell her about the fitful charm, in case it’s something only the cardinal can see.
The court of inquiry is just about to break up, leaving the matter for further advisement, when the news comes from Rome that the Emperor’s Spanish and German troops, who have not been paid for months, have run wild through the Holy City paying themselves, plundering the treasuries and stoning the artworks. Dressed satirically in stolen vestments, they have raped the wives and virgins of Rome. They have tumbled to the ground statues and nuns, and smashed their heads on the pavements. A common soldier has stolen the head of the lance that opened the side of Christ, and has attached it to the shaft of his own murderous weapon. His comrades have torn up antique tombs and tipped out the human dust, to blow away in the wind. The Tiber brims with fresh bodies, the stabbed and the strangled bobbing against the shore. The most grievous news is that the Pope is taken prisoner. As the young Emperor, Charles, is nominally in charge of these troops, and presumably will assert his authority and take advantage of the situation, King Henry’s matrimonial cause is set back. Charles is the nephew of Queen Katherine, and while he is in the Emperor’s hands, Pope Clement is not likely to look favourably on any appeals passed up from the legate in England.
Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are roasting live babies on spits. Oh, he would! says Thomas Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.
Under his clothes, it is well known, More wears a jerkin of horsehair. He beats himself with a small scourge, of the type used by some religious orders. What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell’s, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid – how, by the dozen? – for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farm workers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labour is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product?
We don’t have to invite pain in, he thinks. It’s waiting for us: sooner rather than later. Ask the virgins of Rome.
He thinks, also, that people ought to be found better jobs.
Let us, says the cardinal at this point, take a step back from the situation. He suffers some genuine alarm; it has always been clear to him that one of the secrets of stability in Europe is to have the papacy independent, and in the clutches of neither France nor the Emperor. But his nimble mind is already skipping towards some advantage for Henry.
Suppose, he says – for in this emergency, it will be to me that Pope Clement looks to hold Christendom together – suppose I were to cross the Channel, stop off in Calais to reassure our people there and suppress any unhelpful rumours, then travel into France and conduct face-to-face talks with their king, then progress to Avignon, where they know how to host a papal court, and where the butchers and the bakers, the candlestick-makers and the keepers of lodgings and indeed the whores have lived in hope these many years. I would invite the cardinals to meet me, and set up a council, so that the business of church government could be carried on while His Holiness is suffering the Emperor’s hospitality. If the business brought before this council were to include the king’s private matter, would we be justified in keeping so Christian a monarch waiting on the resolution of military events in Italy? Might we not rule? It ought not to be beyond the wit of men or angels to send a message to Pope Clement, even in captivity, and the same men or angels will bring a message back – surely endorsing our ruling, for we will have heard the full facts. And when, of course, in due time – and how we all look for that day – Pope Clement is restored to perfect liberty, he will be so grateful for the good order kept in his absence that any little matter of signatures or seals will be a formality. Voil? – the King of England will be a bachelor.
Before this can happen the king has to talk to Katherine; he can’t always be hunting somewhere else, while she waits for him, patient, implacable, his place set for supper in her private apartments. It is June, 1527; well barbered and curled, tall and still trim from certain angles, and wearing white silk, the king makes his way to his wife’s apartments. He moves in a perfumed cloud made of the essence of roses: as if he owns all the roses, owns all the summer nights.
His voice is low, gentle, persuasive, and full of regret. If he were free, he says, if there were no impediment, it is she, above all women, that he would choose for his wife. The lack of sons wouldn’t matter; God’s will be done. He would like nothing better than to marry her all over again; lawfully, this time. But there it is: it can’t be managed. She was his brother’s wife. Their union has offended divine law.
You can hear what Katherine says. That wreck of a body, held together by lacing and stays, encloses a voice that you can hear as far as Calais: it resounds from here to Paris, from here to Madrid, to Rome. She is standing on her status, she is standing on her rights; the windows are rattled, from here to Constantinople.
What a woman she is, Thomas Cromwell remarks in Spanish: to no one in particular.
By mid-July the cardinal is making his preparations for the voyage across the Narrow Sea. The warm weather has brought sweating sickness to London, and the city is emptying. A few have gone down already and many more are imagining they have it, complaining of headaches and pains in their limbs. The gossip in the shops is all about pills and infusions, and friars in the streets are doing a lucrative trade in holy medals. This plague came to us in the year 1485, with the armies that brought us the first Henry Tudor. Now every few years it fills the graveyards. It kills in a day. Merry at breakfast, they say: dead by noon.
So the cardinal is relieved to be quitting the city, though he cannot embark without the entourage appropriate for a prince of the church. He must persuade King Fran?ois of the efforts he should make, in Italy, to free Pope Clement by military action; he must assure Fran?ois of the King of England’s amity and assistance, but without committing any troops or funds. If God gives him a following wind, he will bring back not only an annulment, but a treaty of mutual aid between England and France, one which will make the young Emperor’s large jaw quiver, and draw a tear from his narrow Habsburg eye.
So why is he not more cheerful, as he strides about his private chamber at York Place? ‘What will I get, Cromwell, if I gain everything I ask? The queen, who does not like me, will be cast off and, if the king persists in his folly, the Boleyns brought in, who do not like me either; the girl has a spite against me, her father I’ve made a fool of for years, and her uncle, Norfolk, would see me dead in a ditch. Do you think this plague will be over by the time I return? They say these visitations are all from God, but I can’t pretend to know his purposes. While I’m away you should get out of the city yourself.’
He sighs; is the cardinal his only work? No; he is just the patron who demands the most constant attendance. Business always increases. When he works for the cardinal, in London or elsewhere, he pays his own expenses and those of the staff he sends out on Wolsey business. The cardinal says, reimburse yourself, and trusts him to take a fair percentage on top; he doesn’t quibble, because what is good for Thomas Cromwell is good for Thomas Wolsey – and vice versa. His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile – the news from Italy is never good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans, but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants, but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yield, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these; next, putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an accounting system that makes yearly sense and can be audited. Among the city merchants, he is in demand for his advice on trading partners overseas. He has a sideline in arbitration, commercial disputes mostly, as his ability to assess the facts of a case and give a swift impartial decision is trusted here, in Calais and in Antwerp. If you and your opponent can at least concur on the need to save the costs and delays of a court hearing, then Cromwell is, for a fee, your man; and he has the pleasant privilege, often enough, of sending away both sides happy.
These are good days for him: every day a fight he can win. ‘Still serving your Hebrew God, I see,’ remarks Sir Thomas More. ‘I mean, your idol Usury.’ But when More, a scholar revered through Europe, wakes up in Chelsea to the prospect of morning prayers in Latin, he wakes up to a creator who speaks the swift patois of the markets; when More is settling in for a session of self-scourging, he and Rafe are sprinting to Lombard Street to get the day’s exchange rates. Not that he sprints, quite; an old injury drags sometimes, and when he’s tired a foot turns inward, as if he’s walking back towards himself. People suggest it is the legacy of a summer with Cesare Borgia. He likes the stories they tell about him. But where’s Cesare now? He’s dead.
‘Thomas Cromwell?’ people say. ‘That is an ingenious man. Do you know he has the whole of the New Testament by heart?’ He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can out-talk him, if he wants to talk. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit. ‘Liz,’ he says one night, ‘I believe that in a year or two we’ll be rich.’
She is embroidering shirts for Gregory with a black-work design; it’s the same one the queen uses, for she makes the king’s shirts herself.
‘If I were Katherine I’d leave the needle in them,’ he says.
She grins. ‘I know you would.’
Lizzie had grown silent and stern when he told her how the king had spoken, at the meeting with Katherine. He had told her they should separate, pending a judgment on their marriage; perhaps she would retire from court? Katherine had said no; she said that would not be possible; she said she would seek advice from canon lawyers, and that he, himself, should equip himself with better lawyers, and better priests; and then, after the shouting was done, the people with their ears pressed to the walls had heard Katherine crying. ‘He doesn’t like her crying.’
‘Men say,’ Liz reaches for her scissors, ‘“I can’t endure it when women cry” – just as people say, “I can’t endure this wet weather.” As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.’
‘I’ve never made you cry, have I?’
‘Only with laughter,’ she says.
Conversation fades into an easy silence; she is embroidering her own thoughts, he is plotting what to do with his money. He is supporting two young scholars, not belonging to the family, through Cambridge University; the gift blesses the giver. I could increase those endowments, he thinks, and – ‘I suppose I should make a will,’ he says.
She reaches out for his hand. ‘Tom, don’t die.’
‘Good God, no, I’m not proposing it.’
He thinks, I may not be rich yet but I am lucky. Look how I got out from under Walter’s boots, from Cesare’s summer, and a score of bad nights in back alleys. Men, it is supposed, want to pass their wisdom to their sons; he would give a great deal to protect his own son from a quarter of what he knows. Where does Gregory’s sweet nature come from? It must be the result of his mother’s prayers. Richard Williams, Kat’s boy, is sharp, keen and forward. Christopher, his sister Bet’s boy, is clever and willing too. And then he has Rafe Sadler, whom he trusts as he would trust his son; it’s not a dynasty, he thinks, but it’s a start. And quiet moments like this are rare, because his house is full of people every day, people who want to be taken to the cardinal. There are artists looking for a subject. There are solemn Dutch scholars with books under their arms, and L?beck merchants unwinding at length solemn Germanic jokes; there are musicians in transit tuning up strange instruments, and noisy conclaves of agents for the Italian banks; there are alchemists offering recipes and astrologers offering favourable fates, and lonely Polish fur traders who’ve wandered by to see if someone speaks their language; there are printers, engravers, translators and cipherers; and poets, garden designers, cabalists and geometricians. Where are they tonight?
‘Hush,’ Liz says. ‘Listen to the house.’
At first, there is no sound. Then the timbers creak, breathe. In the chimneys, nesting birds shuffle. A breeze blows from the river, faintly shivering the tops of trees. They hear the sleeping breath of children, imagined from other rooms. ‘Come to bed,’ he says.
The king can’t say that to his wife. Or, with any good effect, to the woman they say he loves.
Now the cardinal’s many bags are packed for France; his entourage yields little in splendour to the one with which he crossed seven years ago to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His itinerary is leisurely, before he embarks: Dartford, Rochester, Faversham, Canterbury for three or four days, prayers at the shrine of Becket.
So, Thomas, he says, if you know the king’s had Anne, get a letter to me the very day. I’ll only trust it if I hear it from you. How will you know it’s happened? I should think you’ll know by his face. And if you have not the honour of seeing it? Good point. I wish I had presented you; I should have taken the chance while I had it.
‘If the king doesn’t tire of Anne quickly,’ he tells the cardinal, ‘I don’t see what you are to do. We know princes please themselves, and usually it’s possible to put some gloss on their actions. But what case can you make for Boleyn’s daughter? What does she bring him? No treaty. No land. No money. How are you to present it as a creditable match at all?’
Wolsey sits with his elbows on his desk, his fingers dabbing his closed lids. He takes a great breath, and begins to talk: he begins to talk about England.
You can’t know Albion, he says, unless you can go back before Albion was thought of. You must go back before Caesar’s legions, to the days when the bones of giant animals and men lay on the ground where one day London would be built. You must go back to the New Troy, the New Jerusalem, and the sins and crimes of the kings who rode under the tattered banners of Arthur and who married women who came out of the sea or hatched out of eggs, women with scales and fins and feathers; beside which, he says, the match with Anne looks less unusual. These are old stories, he says, but some people, let us remember, do believe them.
He speaks of the deaths of kings: of how the second Richard vanished into Pontefract Castle and was murdered there or starved; how the fourth Henry, the usurper, died of a leprosy which so scarred and contracted his body that it was the size of a mannikin or child. He talks of the fifth Henry’s victories in France, and the price, not in money, to be paid for Agincourt. He talks of the French princess whom that great prince married; she was a sweet lady, but her father was insane and believed that he was made of glass. From this marriage – Fifth Henry and the Glass Princess – sprung another Henry who ruled an England dark as winter, cold, barren, calamitous. Edward Plantagenet, son of the Duke of York, came as the first sign of spring: he was a native of Aries, the sign under which the whole world was made.
When Edward was eighteen years old, he seized the kingdom, and he did it because of a sign he received. His troops were baffled and battle-weary, it was the darkest time of one of God’s darkest years, and he had just heard the news that should have broken him: his father and his youngest brother had been captured, mocked and slaughtered by the Lancastrian forces. It was Candlemas; huddled in his tent with his generals, he prayed for the slaughtered souls. St Blaise’s Day came: 3 February, black and icy. At ten in the morning, three suns rose in the sky: three blurred discs of silver, sparkling and hazy through particles of frost. Their garland of light spread over the sorry fields, over the sodden forests of the Welsh borderlands, over his demoralised and unpaid troops. His men knelt in prayer on the frozen ground. His knights genuflected to the sky. His whole life took wing and soared. In that wash of brilliant light he saw his future. When no one else could see, he could see: and that is what it means to be a king. At the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross he took prisoner one Owen Tudor. He beheaded him in Hereford marketplace and set his head to rot on the market cross. An unknown woman brought a basin of water and washed the severed head; she combed its bloody hair.
From then on – St Blaise’s Day, the three suns shining – every time he touched his sword he touched it to win. Three months later he was in London and he was king. But he never saw the future again, not clearly as he had that year. Dazzled, he stumbled through his kingship as through a mist. He was entirely the creature of astrologers, of holy men and fantasists. He didn’t marry as he should, for foreign advantage, but became enmeshed in a series of half-made, half-broken promises to an unknown number of women. One of them was a Talbot girl, Eleanor by name, and what was special about her? It was said she was descended – in the female line – from a woman who was a swan.
And why did he fasten his affection, finally, on the widow of a Lancastrian knight? Was it because, as some people thought, her cold blonde beauty raised his pulse? It was not exactly that; it was that she claimed descent from the serpent woman, Melusine, whom you may see in old parchments, winding her coils about the Tree of Knowledge and presiding over the union of the moon and the sun. Melusine faked her life as an ordinary princess, a mortal, but one day her husband saw her naked and glimpsed her serpent’s tale. As she slid from his grip she predicted that her children would found a dynasty that would reign for ever: power with no limit, guaranteed by the devil. She slid away, says the cardinal, and no one ever saw her again.
Some of the candles have gone out; Wolsey does not call for more lights. ‘So you see,’ he says, ‘King Edward’s advisers were planning to marry him to a French princess. As I … as I have intended. And look what happened instead. Look how he chose.’
‘How long is that? Since Melusine?’
It is late; the whole great palace of York Place is quiet, the city sleeping; the river creeping in its channels, silting its banks. In these matters, the cardinal says, there is no measure of time; these spirits slip from our hands and through the ages, serpentine, mutable, sly.
‘But the woman King Edward married – she brought, did she not, a claim to the throne of Castile? Very ancient, very obscure?’
The cardinal nods. ‘That was the meaning of the three suns. The throne of England, the throne of France, the throne of Castile. So when our present king married Katherine, he was moving closer to his ancient rights. Not that anyone, I imagine, dared put it in those terms to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. But it is as well to remember, and mention from time to time, that our king is the ruler of three kingdoms. If each had their own.’
‘By your account, my lord, our king’s Plantagenet grandfather beheaded his Tudor great-grandfather.’
‘A thing to know. But not to mention.’
‘And the Boleyns? I thought they were merchants, but should I have known they had serpent fangs, or wings?’
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