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‘It would be family money.’ What are we doing, he thought, quarrelling right off, rowing within five minutes over this nonexistent wealth? ‘You have a grandson now.’ He added, not aloud, ‘And you aren’t coming anywhere near him.’
‘Oh, I have those already,’ Walter said. ‘Grandsons. What is she, some Dutch girl?’
He told him about Liz Wykys. Admitting, therefore, that he had been in England long enough to marry and have a child. ‘Caught yourself a rich widow,’ Walter said, sniggering. ‘I suppose that was more important than coming to see me. It would be. I suppose you thought I’d be dead. Lawyer, is it? You were always a talker. A slap in the mouth couldn’t cure it.’
‘But God knows you tried.’
‘I suppose you don’t admit to the smithy work now. Or helping your uncle John and sleeping among the swill buckets.’
‘Good God, father,’ he’d said, ‘I never rose so high! What are you thinking?’
When he was a little boy and his uncle John was a cook for the great man, he used to run away to Lambeth to the palace, because the chances of getting fed were better. He used to hang around by the entrance nearest the river – Morton hadn’t built his big gateway then – and watch the people come and go, asking who was who and recognising them next time by the colours of their clothes and the animals and objects painted on their shields. ‘Don’t stand about,’ people bellowed at him, ‘make yourself useful.’
Other children than he made themselves useful in the kitchen by fetching and carrying, their small fingers employed in plucking songbirds and hulling strawberries. Each dinner time the household officers formed up in procession in the passages off the kitchens, and they carried in the tablecloths and the Principal Salt. His uncle John measured the loaves and if they were not just right they were tossed into a basket for the lower household. Those that passed his test he counted as they went in; standing by him, pretending to be his deputy, he learned to count. Into the great hall would go the meats and the cheeses, the sugared fruits and the spiced wafers, to the archbishop’s table – he was not a cardinal then. When the scrapings and remnants came back they were divided up. First choice to the kitchen staff. Then to the almshouse and the hospital, the beggars at the gate. What wasn’t fit for them would go down the line to the children and the pigs.
Each morning and evening the boys earned their keep by running up the back staircases with beer and bread to put in the cupboards for the young gentlemen who were the cardinal’s pages. The pages were of good family. They would wait at table and so become intimate with great men. They would hear their talk and learn from it. When they were not at the table they were learning out of great volumes from their music masters and other masters, who passed up and down the house holding nosegays and pomanders, who spoke in Greek. One of the pages was pointed out to him: Master Thomas More, whom the archbishop himself says will be a great man, so deep his learning already and so pleasant his wit.
One day he brought a wheaten loaf and put it in the cupboard and lingered, and Master Thomas said, ‘Why do you linger?’ But he did not throw anything at him. ‘What is in that great book?’ he asked, and Master Thomas replied, smiling, ‘Words, words, just words.’
Master More is fourteen this year, someone says, and is to go to Oxford. He doesn’t know where Oxford is, or whether he wants to go there or has just been sent. A boy can be sent; and Master Thomas is not yet a man.
Fourteen is twice seven. Am I seven? he asks. Don’t just say yes. Tell me am I? His father says, for God’s sake, Kat, make him up a birthday. Tell him anything, but keep him quiet.
When his father says, I’m sick of the sight of you, he leaves Putney and sets off to Lambeth. When Uncle John says, we have plenty of boys this week, and the devil finds work for idle hands, he sets off back to Putney. Sometimes he gets a present to take home. Sometimes it is a brace of pigeons with their feet tied together, and gaping bloody beaks. He walks along the riverbank whirling them about his head, and they look as if they are flying, till somebody shouts at him, stop that! He can’t do anything without someone shouting. Is it any wonder, John says, when you are into any mischief going, prone to giving back answers and always reliably to be found where you shouldn’t be?
In a small cold room off the kitchen passages there is a woman called Isabella, who makes marzipan figures, for the archbishop and his friends to make plays with after supper. Some of the figures are heroes, such as Prince Alexander, Prince Caesar. Some are saints; today I am making St Thomas, she says. One day she makes marzipan beasts and gives him a lion. You can eat it, she says; he would rather keep it, but Isabella says it will soon fall to pieces. She says, ‘Haven’t you got a mother?’
He learns to read from the scribbled orders for wheat flour or dried beans, for barley and for ducks’ eggs, that come out of the stewards’ pantries. For Walter, the point of being able to read is to take advantage of people who can’t; for the same purpose one must learn to write. So his father sends him to the priest. But again he is always in the wrong, for priests have such strange rules; he should come to the lesson specially, not on his way from whatever else he is doing, not carrying a toad in a bag, or knives that want sharpening, and not cut and bruised either, from one of those doors (doors called Walter) that he is always walking into. The priest shouts, and forgets to feed him, so he takes off to Lambeth again.
On the days when he turns up in Putney, his father says, where by the sweet saints have you been: unless he’s busy inside, on top of a stepmother. Some of the stepmothers last such a short time that his father’s done with them and kicked them out by the time he gets home, but Kat and Bet tell him about them, screeching with laughter. Once when he comes in, dirty and wet, that day’s stepmother says, ‘Who does this boy belong to?’ and tries to kick him out into the yard.
One day when he is nearly home he finds the first Bella lying in the street, and he sees that nobody wants her. She is no longer than a small-sized rat and so shocked and cold that she doesn’t even cry. He carries her home in one hand, and in the other a small cheese wrapped in sage leaves.
The dog dies. His sister Bet says, you can get another. He looks in the street but never finds one. There are dogs, but they belong to somebody.
It can take a long time to get to Putney from Lambeth and sometimes he eats the present, if it’s not raw. But if he only gets a cabbage, he kicks it and rolls it and thrashes it till it is utterly, utterly destroyed.
At Lambeth he follows the stewards around and when they say a number he remembers it; so people say, if you haven’t time to write it down, just tell John’s nephew. He will cast an eye on a sack of whatever’s been ordered in, then warn his uncle to check if it’s short weight.
At night at Lambeth, when it’s still light and all the pots have been scoured, the boys go outside on to the cobbles and play at football. Their shouts rise into the air. They curse and barge into each other, and till somebody yells to stop, they fight with their fists and sometimes bite each other. From the open window above, the young gentlemen sing a part-song in the high careful voices they learn.
Sometimes the face of Master Thomas More appears. He waves to him, but Master Thomas looks down without recognition at the children below. He smiles impartially; his white scholar’s hand draws close the shutter. The moon rises. The pages go to their truckle-beds. The kitchen children wrap themselves in sacking and sleep by the hearth.
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
1527: when the cardinal comes back from France, he immediately begins ordering up banquets. French ambassadors are expected, to set the seal on his concordat. Nothing, he says, nothing, will be too good for these gentlemen.
The court leaves Beaulieu on 27 August. Soon afterwards, Henry meets the returned cardinal, face-to-face for the first time since early June. ‘You will hear that the king’s reception of me was cold,’ Wolsey says, ‘but I can tell you it was not. She – Lady Anne – was present … this is true.’
On the face of it, a large part of his mission has been a failure. The cardinals would not meet him at Avignon: made the excuse that they didn’t want to go south in the heat. ‘But now,’ he says, ‘I have a better plan. I will ask the Pope to send me a co-legate, and I will try the king’s matter in England.’
While you were in France, he says, my wife Elizabeth died.
The cardinal looks up. His hands fly to his heart. His right hand creeps down to the crucifix he wears. He asks how it occurred. He listens. His thumb runs over the tortured body of God: over and over, as if it were any lump of metal. He bows his head. He murmurs, ‘Whom the Lord loveth …’ They sit in silence. To break the silence, he begins to ask the cardinal unnecessary questions.
He scarcely needs an account of the tactics of the summer just past. The cardinal has promised to help finance a French army which will go into Italy and try to expel the Emperor. While this is happening, the Pope, who has lost not just the Vatican but the papal states, and seen Florence throw out his Medici relatives, will be grateful and obliged to King Henry. But as for any longterm rapprochement with the French – he, Cromwell, shares the scepticism of his friends in the city. If you have been in the street in Paris or Rouen, and seen a mother pull her child by the hand, and say, ‘Stop that squalling, or I’ll fetch an Englishman,’ you are inclined to believe that any accord between the countries is formal and transient. The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island. English armies laid waste to the land they moved through. As if systematically, they performed every action proscribed by the codes of chivalry, and broke every one of the laws of war. The battles were nothing; it was what they did between the battles that left its mark. They robbed and raped for forty miles around the line of their march. They burned the crops in the fields, and the houses with the people inside them. They took bribes in coin and in kind and when they were encamped in a district they made the people pay for every day on which they were left unmolested. They killed priests and hung them up naked in the marketplaces. As if they were infidels, they ransacked the churches, packed the chalices in their baggage, fuelled their cooking fires with precious books; they scattered relics and stripped altars. They found out the families of the dead and demanded that the living ransom them; if the living could not pay, they torched the corpses before their eyes, without ceremony, without a single prayer, disposing of the dead as one might the carcases of diseased cattle.
This being so, the kings may forgive each other; the people scarcely can. He does not say this to Wolsey, who has enough bad news waiting for him. During his absence, the king had sent his own envoy to Rome for secret negotiations. The cardinal had found it out; and it had come to nothing, of course. ‘But if the king is less than frank with me, it does nothing to aid our cause.’
He has never before met with such double-dealing. The fact is, the king knows his case is weak in law. He knows this, but does not want to know it. In his own mind, he has convinced himself he was never married and so is now free to marry. Let us say, his will is convinced, but not his conscience. He knows canon law, and where he does not know it already he has made himself expert. Henry, as the younger brother, was brought up and trained for the church, and for the highest offices within it. ‘If His Majesty’s brother Arthur had lived,’ Wolsey says, ‘then His Majesty would have been the cardinal, and not me. Now there’s a thought. Do you know, Thomas, I haven’t had a day off since … since I was on the boat, I suppose. Since the day I was seasick, starting at Dover.’
They had once crossed the Narrow Sea together. The cardinal had lain below, calling on God, but he, being used to the voyage, spent the time on deck, making drawings of the sails and rigging, and of notional ships with notional rigging, and trying to persuade the captain – ‘yourself not offended,’ he said – that there was a way of going faster. The captain thought it over and said, ‘When you fit out a merchant ship of your own, you can do it that way. Of course, any Christian vessel will think you’re pirates, so don’t look for help if you get in difficulties. Sailors,’ he explained, ‘don’t like anything new.’
‘Nor does anyone else,’ he’d said. ‘Not as far as I can see.’
There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves an ancient pedigree, like Walter’s, or enter into the service of ancient families. Don’t try to go it alone, or they’ll think you’re pirates.
This summer, with the cardinal back on dry land, he remembers that voyage. He waits for the enemy to come alongside, and for the hand-to-hand fighting to begin.
But for now he goes down to the kitchens, to see how they are getting on with their masterpieces to impress the French envoys. They have got the steeple on their sugar-paste model of St Paul’s, but they are having trouble with the cross and ball on top. He says, ‘Make marzipan lions – the cardinal wants them.’
They roll their eyes and say, will it never end?
Since he returned from France their master has been uncharacteristically sour. It is not just the overt failures that make him grumble, but the dirty work behind the scenes. Squibs and slanders were printed against him and as fast as he could buy them up there was a new batch on the street. Every thief in France seemed to converge on his baggage train; at Compi?gne, though he mounted a day-and-night guard on his gold plate, a little boy was found to be going up and down the back stairs, passing out the dishes to some great robber who had trained him up.
‘What happened? Did you catch him?’
‘The great robber was put in the pillory. The boy ran away. Then one night, some villain sneaked into my chamber, and carved a device by the window …’ And next morning, a shaft of early sun, creeping through mist and rain, had picked out a gallows, from which dangled a cardinal’s hat.
Once again the summer has been wet. He could swear it has never been light. The harvest will be ruined. The king and the cardinal exchange recipes for pills. The king lays down cares of state should he happen to sneeze, and prescribes for himself an easy day of music-making or strolling – if the rain abates – in his gardens. In the afternoon, he and Anne sometimes retire and are private. The gossip is that she allows him to undress her. In the evenings, good wine keeps the chills out, and Anne, who reads the Bible, points out strong scriptural commendations to him.
After supper he grows thoughtful, says he supposes the King of France is laughing at him; he supposes the Emperor is laughing too. After dark the king is sick with love. He is melancholy, sometimes unreachable. He drinks and sleeps heavily, sleeps alone; he wakes, and because he is a strong man and a young man still he is optimistic, clear-headed, ready for the new day. In daylight, his cause is hopeful.
The cardinal doesn’t stop work if he’s ill. He just goes on at his desk, sneezing, aching, and complaining.
In retrospect, it is easy to see where the cardinal’s decline began, but at the time it was not easy. Look back, and you remember being at sea. The horizon dipped giddily, and the shoreline was lost in mist.
October comes, and his sisters and Mercy and Johane take his dead wife’s clothes and cut them up carefully into new patterns. Nothing is wasted. Every good bit of cloth is made into something else.
At Christmas the court sings:
As the holly groweth green
And never changes hue So I am, and ever hath been, Unto my lady true.
Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow ever so high.
As the holly groweth green,
With ivy all alone, When flowers cannot be seen And green-wood leaves be gone, Green groweth the holly.
Spring, 1528: Thomas More, ambling along, genial, shabby. ‘Just the man,’ he says. ‘Thomas, Thomas Cromwell. Just the man I want to see.’
He is genial, always genial; his shirt collar is grubby. ‘Are you bound for Frankfurt this year, Master Cromwell? No? I thought the cardinal might send you to the fair, to get among the heretic booksellers. He is spending a deal of money buying up their writings, but the tide of filth never abates.’
More, in his pamphlets against Luther, calls the German shit. He says that his mouth is like the world’s anus. You would not think that such words would proceed from Thomas More, but they do. No one has rendered the Latin tongue more obscene.
‘Not really my business,’ Cromwell says, ‘heretics’ books. Heretics abroad are dealt with abroad. The church being universal.’
‘Oh, but once these Bible men get over to Antwerp, you know … What a town it is! No bishop, no university, no proper seat of learning, no proper authorities to stop the proliferation of so-called translations, translations of scripture which in my opinion are malicious and wilfully misleading … But you know that, of course, you spent some years there. And now Tyndale’s been sighted in Hamburg, they say. You’d know him, wouldn’t you, if you saw him?’
‘So would the Bishop of London. You yourself, perhaps.’
‘True. True.’ More considers it. He chews his lip. ‘And you’ll say to me, well, it’s not work for a lawyer, running after false translations. But I hope to get the means to proceed against the brothers for sedition, do you see?’ The brothers, he says; his little joke; he drips with disdain. ‘If there is a crime against the state, our treaties come into play, and I can have them extradited. To answer for themselves in a straiter jurisdiction.’
‘Have you found sedition in Tyndale’s writing?’
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