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‘Ah, Master Cromwell!’ More rubs his hands together. ‘I relish you, I do indeed. Now I feel as a nutmeg must do when it’s grated. A lesser man – a lesser lawyer – would say, “I have read Tyndale’s work, and I find no fault there.” But Cromwell won’t be tripped – he casts it back, he asks me, rather, have you read Tyndale? And I admit it. I have studied the man. I have picked apart his so-called translations, and I have done it letter by letter. I read him, of course, I do. By licence. From my bishop.’
‘It says in Ecclesiasticus, “he that toucheth pitch shall be defiled.” Unless his name’s Thomas More.’
‘Well now, I knew you were a Bible reader! Most apt. But if a priest hears a confession, and the matter be wanton, does that make the priest a wanton fellow himself?’ By way of diversion, More takes his hat off, and absently folds it up in his hands; he creases it in two; his bright, tired eyes glance around, as if he might be confuted from all sides. ‘And I believe the Cardinal of York has himself licensed his young divines at Cardinal College to read the sectaries’ pamphlets. Perhaps he includes you in his dispensations. Does he?’
It would be strange for him to include his lawyer; but then it’s strange work for lawyers altogether. ‘We have come around in a circle,’ he says.
More beams at him. ‘Well, after all, it’s spring. We shall soon be dancing around the maypole. Good weather for a sea voyage. You could take the chance to do some wool-trade business, unless it’s just men you’re fleecing these days? And if the cardinal asked you to go to Frankfurt, I suppose you’d go? Now if he wants some little monastery knocked down, when he thinks it has good endowments, when he thinks the monks are old, Lord bless them, and a little wandering in their wits; when he thinks the barns are full and the ponds well stocked with fish, the cattle fat and the abbot old and lean … off you go, Thomas Cromwell. North, south, east or west. You and your little apprentices.’
If another man were saying this, he’d be trying to start a fight. When Thomas More says it, it leads to an invitation to dinner. ‘Come out to Chelsea,’ he says. ‘The talk is excellent, and we shall like you to add to it. Our food is simple, but good.’
Tyndale says a boy washing dishes in the kitchen is as pleasing to the eye of God as a preacher in the pulpit or the apostle on the Galilee shore. Perhaps, he thinks, I won’t mention Tyndale’s opinion.
More pats his arm. ‘Have you no plans to marry again, Thomas? No? Perhaps wise. My father always says, choosing a wife is like putting your hand into a bag full of writhing creatures, with one eel to six snakes. What are the chances you will pull out the eel?’
‘Your father has married, what, three times?’
‘Four.’ He smiles. The smile is real. It crinkles the corner of his eyes. ‘Your beadsman, Thomas,’ he says, as he ambles away.
When More’s first wife died, her successor was in the house before the corpse was cold. More would have been a priest, but human flesh called to him with its inconvenient demands. He did not want to be a bad priest, so he became a husband. He had fallen in love with a girl of sixteen, but her sister, at seventeen, was not yet married; he took the elder, so that her pride should not be hurt. He did not love her; she could not read or write; he hoped that might be amended, but seemingly not. He tried to get her to learn sermons by heart, but she grumbled and was stubborn in her ignorance; he took her home to her father, who suggested beating her, which made her so frightened that she swore she would complain no more. ‘And she never did,’ More will say. ‘Though she didn’t learn any sermons either.’ It seems he thought the negotiations had been satisfactory: honour preserved all round. The stubborn woman gave him children, and when she died at twenty-four, he married a city widow, getting on in years and advanced in stubbornness: another one who couldn’t read. There it is: if you are so lenient with yourself as to insist on living with a woman, then for the sake of your soul you should make it a woman you really don’t like.
Cardinal Campeggio, whom the Pope is sending to England at Wolsey’s request, was a married man before he was a priest. It makes him especially suitable to help Wolsey – who of course has no experience of marital problems – on the next stage of the journey to thwart the king in his heart’s desire. Though the imperial army has withdrawn from Rome, a spring of negotiations has failed to yield any definite result. Stephen Gardiner has been in Rome, with a letter from the cardinal, praising the Lady Anne, trying to disabuse the Pope of any notion he may entertain that the king is being wilful and whimsical in his choice of bride. The cardinal had sat long over the letter listing her virtues, writing it in his own hand. ‘Womanly modesty … chastity … can I say chastity?’
The cardinal looked up. ‘Know something?’ He hesitated, and returned to his letter. ‘Apt to bear children? Well, her family is fertile. Loving and faithful daughter of the church … Perhaps stretching a point … they say she has the scriptures in French set up in her chamber, and lets her women read them, but I would have no positive knowledge of that …’
‘King Fran?ois allows the Bible in French. She learned her scriptures there, I suppose.’
‘Ah, but women, you see. Women reading the Bible, there’s another point of contention. Does she know what Brother Martin thinks is a woman’s place? We shouldn’t mourn, he says, if our wife or daughter dies in childbirth – she’s only doing what God made her for. Very harsh, Brother Martin, very intractable. And perhaps she is not a Bible-woman. Perhaps it is a slur on her. Perhaps it is just that she is out of patience with churchmen. I wish she did not blame me for her difficulties. Not blame me so very much.’
Lady Anne sends friendly messages to the cardinal, but he thinks she does not mean them. ‘If,’ Wolsey had said, ‘I saw the prospect of an annulment for the king, I would go to the Vatican in person, have my veins opened and allow the documents to be written in my own blood. Do you think, if Anne knew that, it would content her? No, I didn’t think so, but if you see any of the Boleyns, make them the offer. By the way, I suppose you know a person called Humphrey Monmouth? He is the man who had Tyndale in his house for six months, before he ran off to wherever. They say he sends him money still, but that can’t possibly be true, as how would he know where to send? Monmouth … I am merely mentioning his name. Because … now why am I?’ The cardinal had closed his eyes. ‘Because I am merely mentioning it.’
The Bishop of London has already filled his own prisons. He is locking up Lutherans and sectaries in Newgate and the Fleet, with common criminals. There they remain until they recant and do public penance. If they relapse they will be burned; there are no second chances.
When Monmouth’s house is raided, it is clear of all suspect writings. It’s almost as if he was forewarned. There are neither books nor letters that link him to Tyndale and his friends. All the same, he is taken to the Tower. His family is terrified. Monmouth is a gentle and fatherly man, a master draper, well liked in his guild and the city at large. He loves the poor and buys cloth even when trade is bad, so the weavers may keep in work. No doubt the imprisonment is designed to break him; his business is tottering by the time he is released. They have to let him go, for lack of evidence, because you can’t make anything of a heap of ashes in the hearth.
Monmouth himself would be a heap of ashes, if Thomas More had his way. ‘Not come to see us yet, Master Cromwell?’ he says. ‘Still breaking dry bread in cellars? Come now, my tongue is sharper than you deserve. We must be friends, you know.’
It sounds like a threat. More moves away, shaking his head: ‘We must be friends.’
Ashes, dry bread. England was always, the cardinal says, a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people, who are working slowly towards their deliverance, and who are visited by God with special tribulations. If England lies under God’s curse, or some evil spell, it has seemed for a time that the spell has been broken, by the golden king and his golden cardinal. But those golden years are over, and this winter the sea will freeze; the people who see it will remember it all their lives.
Johane has moved into the house at Austin Friars with her husband John Williamson and her daughter little Johane – Jo, the children call her, seeing she is too small for a full name. John Williamson is needed in the Cromwell business. ‘Thomas,’ says Johane, ‘what exactly is your business these days?’
In this way she detains him in talk. ‘Our business,’ he says, ‘is making people rich. There are many ways to do this and John is going to help me out with them.’
‘But John won’t have to deal with my lord cardinal, will he?’
The gossip is that people – people of influence – have complained to the king, and the king has complained to Wolsey, about the monastic houses he has closed down. They don’t think of the good use to which the cardinal has put the assets; they don’t think of his colleges, the scholars he maintains, the libraries he is founding. They’re only interested in getting their own fingers in the spoils. And because they’ve been cut out of the business, they pretend to believe the monks have been left naked and lamenting in the road. They haven’t. They’ve been transferred elsewhere, to bigger houses better run. Some of the younger ones have been let go, boys who have no calling to the life. Questioning them, he usually finds they know nothing, which makes nonsense of the abbeys’ claims to be the light of learning. They can stumble through a Latin prayer, but when you say, ‘Go on then, tell me what it means,’ they say, ‘Means, master?’ as if they thought that words and their meanings were so loosely attached that the tether would snap at the first tug.
‘Don’t worry about what people say,’ he tells Johane. ‘I take responsibility for it, I do, alone.’
The cardinal has received the complaints with a supreme hauteur. He has grimly noted in his file the names of the complainers. Then he has taken out of his file the list, and handed it over to his man, with a tight smile. All he cares for are his new buildings, his banners flying, his coat of arms embossed on the brickwork, his Oxford scholars; he’s plundering Cambridge to get the brightest young doctors over to Cardinal College. There was trouble before Easter, when the dean found six of the new men in possession of a number of forbidden books. Lock them up by all means, Wolsey said, lock them up and reason with them. If the weather is not too hot, or not too wet, I might come up and reason with them myself.
No use trying to explain this to Johane. She only wants to know her husband’s not within arrow-shot of the slanders that are flying. ‘You know what you’re doing, I suppose.’ Her eyes dart upwards. ‘At least, Tom, you always look as if you do.’
Her voice, her footstep, her raised eyebrow, her pointed smile, everything reminds him of Liz. Sometimes he turns, thinking that Liz has come into the room.
The new arrangements confuse Grace. She knows her mother’s first husband was called Tom Williams; they name him in their household prayers. Is Uncle Williamson therefore his son? she asks.
Johane tries to explain it. ‘Save your breath,’ Anne says. She taps her head. Her bright little fingers bounce from the seed pearls of her cap. ‘Slow,’ she says.
Later, he says to her, ‘Grace isn’t slow, just young.’
‘I never remember I was as foolish as that.’
‘They’re all slow, except us? Is that right?’
Anne’s face says, more or less, that is right. ‘Why do people marry?’
‘So there can be children.’
‘Horses don’t marry. But there are foals.’
‘Most people,’ he says, ‘feel it increases their happiness.’
‘Oh, yes, that,’ Anne says. ‘May I choose my husband?’
‘Of course,’ he says; meaning, up to a point.
‘Then I choose Rafe.’
For a minute, for two minutes together, he feels his life might mend. Then he thinks, how could I ask Rafe to wait? He needs to set up his own household. Even five years from now, Anne would be a very young bride.
‘I know,’ she says. ‘And time goes by so slowly.’
It’s true; one always seems to be waiting for something. ‘You seem to have thought it through,’ he says. You don’t have to spell out to her, keep this to yourself, because she knows to do that; you don’t have to lead this female child through a conversation with the little shifts and demurs that most women demand. She’s not like a flower, a nightingale: she’s like … like a merchant adventurer, he thinks. A look in the eye to skewer your intentions, and a deal done with a slap of the palm.
She pulls off her cap; she twists the seed pearls in her fingers, and tugs at a strand of her dark hair, stretching it and pulling out its wave. She scoops up the rest of her hair, twists it and wraps it around her neck. ‘I could do that twice,’ she says, ‘if my neck were smaller.’ She sounds fretful. ‘Grace thinks I cannot marry Rafe because we are related. She thinks everybody who lives in a house must be cousins.’
‘You are not Rafe’s cousin.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I am sure. Anne … put your cap back on. What will your aunt say?’
She makes a face. It is a face imitative of her aunt Johane. ‘Oh, Thomas,’ she murmurs, ‘you are always so sure!’
He raises a hand to cover his smile. For a moment Johane seems less worrying. ‘Put your cap on,’ he says mildly.
She squashes it back on to her head. She is so little, he thinks; but still, she’d be better suited by a helmet. ‘How did Rafe come here?’ she says.
He came here from Essex, because that’s where his father happened to be at the time. His father Henry was a steward to Sir Edward Belknap, who was a cousin of the Grey family, and so related to the Marquis of Dorset, and the marquis was Wolsey’s patron, when the cardinal was a scholar at Oxford. So yes, cousins come into it; and the fact that, when he had only been back in England for a year or two, he was already somehow in the cardinal’s affinity, though he had never set eyes on the great man himself; already he, Cromwell, was a man useful to employ. He worked for the Dorset family on various of their tangled lawsuits. The old marchioness had him tracking down bed hangings and carpets for her. Send that. Be here. To her, all the world was a menial. If she wanted a lobster or a sturgeon, she ordered it up, and if she wanted good taste she ordered it in the same way. The marchioness would run her hand over Florentine silks, making little squeaks of pleasure. ‘You bought it, Master Cromwell,’ she would say. ‘And very beautiful it is. Your next task is to work out how we pay for it.’
Somewhere in this maze of obligations and duties, he met Henry Sadler, and agreed to take his son into his household. ‘Teach him all you know,’ Henry proposed, a little fearfully. He arranged to collect Rafe on his way back from business in his part of the country, but he picked a bad day for it: mud and drenching rain, clouds chasing in from the coast. It was not much after two when he splashed up to the door, but the light was already failing; Henry Sadler said, can’t you stay, you won’t make it to London before they close the gates. I ought to try to get home tonight, he said. I have to be in court, and then there’ll be my Lady Dorset’s debt collectors to see off, and you know how that is … Mistress Sadler glanced fearfully outside, and down at her child: from whom she must now part, trusting him, at the age of seven, to the weather and the roads.
This is not harsh, this is usual. But Rafe was so small that he almost thought it harsh. His baby curls had been cropped and his ginger hair stood up at the crown. His mother and father knelt down and patted him. Then they swaddled and pulled and knotted him into multiple layers of over-wrapped padding, so that his slight frame swelled into the likeness of a small barrel. He looked down at the child and out at the rain and thought, sometimes I should be warm and dry like other men; how do they contrive it while I never can? Mistress Sadler knelt and took her son’s face in her hands. ‘Remember everything we have told you,’ she whispered. ‘Say your prayers. Master Cromwell, please see he says his prayers.’
When she looked up he saw that her eyes were blurred with tears and he saw that the child could not bear it, and was shaking inside his vast wrappings and about to howl. He threw his cloak around himself. A scatter of raindrops flew from it, baptised the scene. ‘Well, Rafe, what do you think? If you’re man enough …’ He held out his gauntleted hand. The child’s hand slotted into it. ‘Shall we see how far we get?’
We’ll do this fast so you don’t look back, he thought. The wind and rain drove the parents back from the open door. He threw Rafe into the saddle. The rain came at them horizontally. On the outskirts of London the wind dropped. He lived at Fenchurch Street then. At the door a servant held out his arms in an offer to take Rafe, but he said, ‘We drowned men will stick together.’
The child had become a dead weight in his arms, shrinking flesh inside seven sodden layers of interwrapped wool. He stood Rafe before the fire; vapours rose from him. Roused by the warmth, he put up small frozen fingers and tentatively began to unpick, to unravel himself. What place is this, he said, in a distinct, polite tone.
‘London,’ he said. ‘Fenchurch Street. Home.’
He took a linen towel and gently blotted from his face the journey just passed. He rubbed his head. Rafe’s hair stood up in spikes. Liz came in. ‘Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?’ Rafe turned his face to her. He smiled. He slept on his feet.
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