II.. Master of Phantoms.. London: May 1536

‘Come and sit with me a while.’

‘Why?’ Lady Worcester is wary.

‘Because I have cakes.’

She smiles. ‘I am greedy.’

‘I even have a waiter to serve them.’

She eyes Christophe. ‘This boy is a waiter?’

‘Christophe, first Lady Worcester requires a cushion.’

The cushion is plump with down and embroidered with a pattern of hawks and flowers. She takes it in her two hands, strokes it absently, then positions it behind her and leans back. ‘Oh, that’s better,’ she smiles. Pregnant, she rests a composed hand on her belly, like a Madonna in a painting. In this small room, its window open to mild spring air, he is holding a court of inquiry. He does not mind who comes in to see him, who is noticed as they come and go. Who would not pass the time with a man who has cakes? And Master Secretary is always pleasant and useful. ‘Christophe, hand my lady a napkin, and go and sit in the sun for ten minutes. Close the door behind you.’

Lady Worcester – Elizabeth – watches the door close; then she leans forward and whispers, ‘Master Secretary, I am in such trouble.’

‘And this,’ he indicates her person, ‘cannot be easy. Is the queen jealous of your condition?’

‘Well, she keeps me close to her, and she need not. She asks me each day how I do. I could not have a fonder mistress.’ But her face shows doubt. ‘In some ways it would be better if I were to go home to the country. As it is, kept before the court, I am pointed at by all.’

‘Do you think then it is the queen herself who began the murmurs against you?’

‘Who else?’

A rumour is going about the court that Lady Worcester’s baby is not the earl’s child. Perhaps it was spread out of malice; perhaps as someone’s idea of a joke: perhaps because someone was bored. Her gentle brother, the courtier Anthony Browne, has stormed into her rooms to take her to task: ‘I told him,’ she says, ‘don’t pick on me. Why me?’ As if sharing her indignation, the curd tart on her palm quakes in its pastry shell.

He frowns. ‘Let me take you back a step. Is your family blaming you because people are talking about you, or because there is truth in what they say?’

Lady Worcester dabs her lips. ‘You think I will confess, just for cakes?’

‘Let me smooth this over for you. I should like to help you if I can. Has your husband reason to be angry?’

‘Oh, men,’ she says. ‘They are always angry. They are so angry they can’t count on their fingers.’

‘So it could be the earl’s?’

‘If it is a strong boy I dare say he will own it.’ The cakes are distracting her: ‘That white one, is that almond cream?’

Lady Worcester’s brother, Anthony Browne, is Fitzwilliam’s half-brother. (All these people are related to each other. Luckily, the cardinal left him a chart, which he updates whenever there is a wedding.) Fitzwilliam and Browne and the aggrieved earl have been conferring in corners. And Fitzwilliam has said to him, can you find out, Crumb, for I am sure I cannot, what the devil is going on among the queen’s waiting-women?

‘And then there’s the debts,’ he says to her. ‘You are in a sad place, my lady. You have borrowed from everyone. What did you buy? I know there are sweet young men about the king, witty young men too, always amorous and ready to write a lady a letter. Do you pay to be flattered?’

‘No. To be complimented.’

‘You should get that free.’

‘I believe that is a gallant speech.’ She licks her fingers. ‘But you are a man of the world, Master Secretary, and you know that if you yourself wrote a woman a poem you would enclose a bill.’

He laughs. ‘True. I know the value of my time. But I did not think your admirers were so miserly.’

‘But they have so much to do, these boys!’ She selects a candied violet, nibbles it. ‘I do not know why we speak of idle youths. They are busy day and night, making their careers. They wouldn’t send their account in. But you must buy them a jewel for their cap. Or some gilt buttons for a sleeve. Fee their tailor, perhaps.’

He thinks of Mark Smeaton, in his finery. ‘Does the queen pay out in this way?’

‘We call it patronage. We don’t call it paying out.’

‘I accept your correction.’ Jesus, he thinks, a man could use a whore, and call it ‘patronage’. Lady Worcester has dropped some raisins on the table and he feels the urge to pick them up and feed them to her; probably that would be all right with her. ‘So when the queen is a patron, does she ever, does she ever patronise in private?’

‘In private? How could I know?’

He nods. It’s tennis, he thinks. That shot was too good for me. ‘What does she wear, to patronise?’

‘I have not myself seen her naked.’

‘So you think, these flatterers, you don’t think she goes to it with them?’

‘Not in my sight or hearing.’

‘But behind a closed door?’

‘Doors are often closed. It is a common thing.’

‘If I were to ask you to bear witness, would you repeat that on oath?’

She flicks a speck of cream away. ‘That doors are often closed? I could go so far.’

‘And what would be your fee for that?’ He is smiling; his eyes rest on her face.

‘I am a little afraid of my husband. Because I have borrowed money. He does not know, so please…hush.’

‘Point your creditors in my direction. And for the future, if you need a compliment, draw on the bank of Cromwell. We look after our customers and our terms are generous. We are known for it.’

She puts down her napkin; picks a last primrose petal from the last cheese cake. She turns at the door. A thought has struck her. Her hand bunches her skirts. ‘The king wants a reason to put her aside, yes? And the closed door will be enough? I would not wish her harm.’

She grasps the situation, at least partly. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach. Suspicion would ruin the queen, a crumb or a sliver of truth would ruin her faster; you wouldn’t need a bed sheet with a snail-trail left by Francis Weston or some other sonneteer. ‘Put her aside,’ he says. ‘Yes, possibly. Unless these rumours prove to be misunderstandings. As I’m sure they will in your case. I am sure your husband will be contented when the child is born.’

Her face clears. ‘So you will speak to him? But not about the debt? And speak to my brother? And William Fitzwilliam? You will persuade them to leave me alone, please? There is nothing I have done, that other ladies have not.’

‘Mistress Shelton?’ he says.

‘That would be no news.’

‘Mistress Seymour.’

‘That would be news indeed.’

‘Lady Rochford?’

She hesitates. ‘Jane Rochford does not like the sport.’

‘Why, is my lord Rochford inept?’

‘Inept.’ She seems to taste the word. ‘I have not heard her describe it like that.’ She smiles. ‘But I have heard her describe it.’

Christophe is back. She sails past him, a woman disburdened. ‘Oh, look at that,’ Christophe says. ‘She has picked all the petals off the top, and left the crumb.’

Christophe sits down to stuff his maw with the remnants. He craves honey, sugar. You can never mistake a boy who was brought up hungry. We are coming to the sweet season of the year, when the air is mild and the leaves pale, and lemon cakes are flavoured with lavender: egg custards, barely set, infused with a sprig of basil; elderflowers simmered in a sugar syrup and poured over halved strawberries.

St George’s Day. All over England, cloth and paper dragons sway in noisy procession through the streets, and the dragon-slayer after them in his armour of tin, beating an old rusty sword on his shield. Virgins plait wreaths of leaves, and spring flowers are carried into church. In the hall at Austin Friars, Anthony has hung from the ceiling beams a beast with green scales, a rolling eye and a lolling tongue; it looks lascivious, and reminds him of something, but he can’t remember what.

This is the day the Garter knights hold their chapter, where they elect a new knight if any member has died. The Garter is the most distinguished order of chivalry in Christendom: the King of France is a member, so is the King of Scots. So is Monseigneur the queen’s father, and the king’s bastard Harry Fitzroy. This year the meeting is at Greenwich. The foreign members will not attend, it is understood, and yet the chapter serves as a gathering of his new allies: William Fitzwilliam, Henry Courtenay the Marquis of Exeter, my lord of Norfolk, and Charles Brandon, who seems to have forgiven him, Thomas Cromwell, for shoving him around the presence chamber: who now seeks him out and says, ‘Cromwell, we have had our differences. But I always did say to Harry Tudor, now take note of Cromwell, let him not go down with his ingrate master, for Wolsey has taught him his tricks and he may be useful to you accordingly.’

‘Did you so, my lord? I am much bound to you for that word.’

‘Aye, well, we see the consequence, for now you are a rich man, are you not?’ He chuckles. ‘And so is Harry rich.’

‘And I am always glad to bestow gratitude in the proper quarter. May I ask, who will my lord vote for in the Garter chapter?’

Brandon gives him a strenuous wink. ‘Depend on me.’

There is one vacancy, caused by the death of Lord Bergavenny; there are two men who expect to have it. Anne has been pressing the merits of brother George. The other candidate is Nicholas Carew; and when soundings have been taken and the votes have been counted it is Sir Nicholas whose name is read out by the king. George’s people are quick to limit the damage, to give out that they didn’t expect anything: that Carew was promised the next vacancy, that King Francis himself asked the king three years ago to give it him. If the queen is displeased, she does not show it, and the king and George Boleyn have a project to discuss. The day after May Day, a royal party is to ride down to Dover to inspect the new work on the harbour, and George will accompany it in his capacity as Warden of the Cinque Ports: an office which he fills badly, in his, Cromwell’s opinion. He himself plans to ride down with the king. He could even go over to Calais for a day or two, and order matters there; so he gives out, the rumour of his arrival serving to keep the garrison on the qui vive.

Harry Percy has come down from his own country for the Garter meeting, and is now at his house at Stoke Newington. That might be useful, he says to his nephew Richard, I might send someone to see him and sound him out, whether he might be prepared to give back word on this pre-contract business. Go myself, if I need to. But we must take this week hour by hour. Richard Sampson is waiting for him, Dean of the Chapel Royal, Doctor of Canon Law (Cambridge, Paris, Perugia, Siena): the king’s proctor in his first divorce.

‘Here is a pretty pickle,’ is all the dean will say, laying down his folios in his precise way. There is a mule cart outside, groaning with further folios, well-wrapped to save them from adverse weather: the documents go all the way back to the king’s first expressed dissatisfaction with his first queen. At which time, he says, to the dean, we were all young. Sampson laughs; it is a clerical laugh, like the creak of a vestment chest. ‘I barely recall being young, but I suppose we were. And some of us carefree.’

They are going to try for nullity, see if Henry can be released. ‘I hear Harry Percy bursts into tears at the sound of your name,’ Sampson says.

‘They much exaggerate. The earl and I have had many civil interchanges these last months.’

He keeps turning over papers from the first divorce, and finding the cardinal’s hand, amending, suggesting, drawing arrows in the margin.

‘Unless,’ he says, ‘Anne the queen would decide to enter religion. Then the marriage would be dissolved of itself.’

‘I’m sure she would make an excellent abbess,’ Sampson says politely. ‘Have you sounded out my lord archbishop yet?’

Cranmer is away. He has been putting it off. ‘I have to show him,’ he tells the dean, ‘that our cause, that is to say, the cause of the English Bible, will get on better without her. We want the living word of God to sound in the king’s ears like music, not like Anne’s ingrate whining.’

He says ‘we’, including the dean out of courtesy. He is not at all sure that, in his heart, Sampson is devoted to reform, but it is outward compliance that concerns him, and the dean is always cooperative.

‘This little matter of sorcery.’ Sampson clears his throat. ‘The king does not mean us to pursue it seriously? If it could be proved that some unnatural means were used to draw him into the marriage, then of course his consent could not be free, the contract is of no effect; but surely, when he says he was seduced by charms, by spells, he was speaking, as it were, in figures? As a poet might speak of a lady’s fairy charms, her wiles, her seductions…? Oh, by the Mass,’ the dean says mildly. ‘Do not look at me in that way, Thomas Cromwell. It is a business I would rather not meddle in. I would rather have Harry Percy again, and between us beat him into sense. I would rather bring out the matter of Mary Boleyn, whose name, I must say, I hoped never to hear again.’

He shrugs. He sometimes thinks about Mary; what it would have been like, if he had taken her up on her offers. That night in Calais, he had been so close he could taste her breath, sweetmeats and spices, wine…but of course, that night in Calais, any man with functioning tackle would have done for Mary. Gently, the dean breaks into his train of thought: ‘May I suggest? Go and talk to the queen’s father. Talk to Wiltshire. He’s a reasonable man, we were at Bilbao together on embassy a few years back, I always found him to be reasonable. Get him to ask his daughter to go quietly. Save us all twenty years of grief.’

To ‘Monseigneur’, then: he has Wriothesley to take the record of the meeting. Anne’s father brings his own folio, while brother George brings only his delightful self. He is always a sight to see: George likes his clothes braided and tasselled, stippled and striped and slashed. Today he wears white velvet over red silk, scarlet rippling from each gash. He is reminded of a picture he saw once in the Low Countries, of a saint being flayed alive. The skin of the man’s calves was folded neatly over his ankles, like soft boots, and his face wore an expression of unblinking serenity.

He puts his papers down on the table. ‘I will not waste words. You see the situation. Matters have come to the king’s attention that, if he had always known them, would have prevented this pretensed marriage with Lady Anne.’

George says, ‘I have spoken to the Earl of Northumberland. He stands by his oath. There was no pre-contract.’

‘Then that is unfortunate,’ he says. ‘I do not see what I am to do. Perhaps you can help me, Lord Rochford, with some suggestions of your own?’

‘We will help you to the Tower,’ says George.

‘Minute that,’ he says to Wriothesley. ‘My lord Wiltshire, may I recall some circumstances that your son here may be unaware of? In the matter of your daughter and Harry Percy, the late cardinal called you to account, warning you that there could be no match between them, for the lowness of your family and the high estate of the Percy line. And your answer was that you were not responsible for what Anne did, that you could not control your own children.’

Thomas Boleyn arranges his face, as a certain piece of knowledge dawns. ‘So it was you, Cromwell. Scribbling in the shadows.’

‘I never denied it, my lord. Now on that occasion you did not get much sympathy from the cardinal. Myself, being a father of a family, I understand how these things occur. You would hold to it, at the time, that your daughter and Harry Percy had gone far in the matter. By which you meant – as the cardinal was pleased to put it – a haystack and a warm night. You implied their liaison was consummated, and a true marriage.’

Boleyn smirks. ‘But then, the king made known his feelings for my daughter.’

‘So you rethought your position. As one does. I am asking you to rethink once more. It would be better for your daughter if she had in fact been married to Harry Percy. Then her marriage to the king could be proclaimed null. And the king would be left free to select another lady.’

A decade of self-aggrandisement, since his daughter flashed her cunny at the king, has made Boleyn rich and settled and confident. His era is drawing to a close, and he, Cromwell, sees him decide not to fight it. Women age, men like variety: it’s an old story, and even an anointed queen cannot escape it to write her own ending. ‘So. What about Anne?’ her father says. No particular tenderness attaches to the question.

He says, as Carew did, ‘Convent?’

‘I should expect a generous settlement,’ Boleyn says. ‘For the family, I mean.’

‘Wait,’ George says. ‘My lord father, enter into no undertakings with this man. Enter into no discussion.’

Wiltshire speaks coldly to his son. ‘Sir. Calmly. Things are as they are. What if, Cromwell, she were to be left in possession of her estate as marchioness? And we, her family, remain in undisturbed possession of ours?’

‘I think the king would prefer her to withdraw from the world. I am sure we could find some godly house, well-governed, where her beliefs and views will be comfortable.’

‘I am disgusted,’ George says. He edges away from his father.

He says, ‘Minute Lord Rochford’s disgust.’

Wriothesley’s pen scratches.

‘But our land?’ Wiltshire says. ‘Our offices of state? I could continue to serve the king as Lord Privy Seal, surely. And my son here, his dignities and titles –’

‘Cromwell wants me out,’ George shoots to his feet. ‘That’s the plain truth. He has never ceased to interfere with what I do in defence of the realm, he is writing to Dover, he is writing to Sandwich, his men are swarming everywhere, my letters are redirected to him, my orders are countermanded by him –’

‘Oh, sit down,’ Wriothesley says. He laughs: as much at his own wearied impertinence, as at George’s face. ‘Or of course, my lord, stand, if you please.’

Now Rochford does not know which to do. All he can do is reinforce that he is standing, by flouncing on the spot; he can pick up his hat; he can say, ‘I pity you, Master Secretary. If you succeed in forcing out my sister, your new friends will make short work of you once she is gone, and if you do not succeed, and she and the king are reconciled, then I shall make short work of you. So whichever way you turn, Cromwell, you have overreached yourself this time.’

He says mildly, ‘I only sought this interview, my lord Rochford, because you have influence with your sister, no man more. I am offering you your safety, in return for your kind help.’

The elder Boleyn closes his eyes. ‘I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to Anne.’

‘And talk to your son here, because I will talk to him no more.’

Wiltshire says, ‘I marvel, George, that you do not see where this is tending.’

‘What?’ George says. ‘What, what?’ He is still whatting as his father tows him away. On the threshold the elder Boleyn bows his head civilly. ‘Master Secretary. Master Wriothesley.’

They watch them go out: father and son. ‘That was interesting,’ Wriothesley says. ‘And where is it tending, sir?’

He reshuffles his papers.

‘I remember,’ Wriothesley says, ‘a certain play at court, after the cardinal came down. I remember Sexton, the jester, dressed in scarlet robes, in the character of the cardinal, and how four devils bore him off to Hell, each seizing an extremity. And they were masked. And I wondered, was George –’

‘Right forepaw,’ he says.

‘Ah,’ says Call-Me-Risley.

‘I went behind the screen at the back of the hall. I saw them pull off their hairy bodies, and Lord Rochford take off his mask. Why did you not follow me? You could have seen for yourself.’

Mr Wriothesley smiles. ‘I did not care to go behind that scene. I feared you might confuse me with the players, and for ever after I would be tainted in your mind.’

He remembers it: an evening of feral stench, as the flower of chivalry became hunting dogs, baying for blood, the whole court hissing and jeering as the figure of the cardinal was dragged and bounced across the floor. Then a voice called out from the hall: ‘Shame on you!’ He asks Wriothesley, ‘That was not you who spoke?’

‘No.’ Call-Me will not lie. ‘I think perhaps it was Thomas Wyatt.’

‘I believe it was. I have thought about it these many years. Look, Call-Me, I have to go and see the king. Shall we have a glass of wine first?’

Mr Wriothesley on his feet. Searching out a waiting boy. Light shines on the curve of a pewter jug, Gascon wine splashes into a cup. ‘I gave Francis Bryan an import licence for this,’ he says. ‘Would be three months back. No palate, has he? I didn’t know he’d be selling it back to the king’s buttery.’

He goes to Henry, scattering guards, attendants, gentlemen; he is barely announced, so that Henry looks up, startled, from his music book. ‘Thomas Boleyn sees his way. He is only anxious to retain his good name with Your Majesty. But I cannot get any cooperation from his son.’

‘Why not?’

Because he’s an idiot? ‘I think he believes Your Majesty’s mind can be changed.’

Henry is piqued. ‘He ought to know me. George was a little lad of ten when he first came to court, he ought to know me. I do not change my mind.’

It’s true, in the one way. Like a crab the king goes sideways to his destination, but then he sinks his pincers in. It is Jane Seymour who is pinched. ‘I tell you what I think about Rochford,’ Henry says. ‘He is what, thirty-two now, but he is still called Wiltshire’s son, he is still called the queen’s brother, he does not feel he has come into his own, and he has no heir to follow him, not so much as a daughter. I have done what I can for him. I have sent him abroad many a time to represent me. And that will cease, I suppose, because when he is no longer my brother, no one will take any notice of him. But he will not be a poor man. I may continue to favour him. Though not if he is obstructive. So he should be warned. Must I speak to him myself?’

Henry looks irritated. He should not have to manage this. Cromwell is supposed to manage it for him. Ease out the Boleyns, ease in the Seymours. His business is more kingly: praying for the success of his enterprises, and writing songs for Jane.

‘Leave it a day or two, sir, and I will interview him apart from his father. I think in Lord Wiltshire’s presence he feels the need to strut and posture.’

‘Yes, I am not often wrong,’ Henry says. ‘Vanity, that’s all it is. Now listen.’ He sings:

‘The daisy delectable,

The violet wan and blue.

I am not variable…

‘You perceive it is an old song that I am trying to rework. What pairs with blue? Apart from “new”?’

What else do you need, he thinks. He takes his leave. The galleries are lit by torches, from which figures melt away. The atmosphere at court, this Friday evening in April, reminds him of the public bath-houses they have in Rome. The air is thick and the swimming figures of other men glide past you – perhaps men you know, but you don’t know them without their clothes. Your skin is hot then cold then hot again. The tiles are slippery beneath your feet. On each side of you are doors left ajar, just a few inches, and outside your line of sight, but very close to you, perversities are occurring, unnatural conjugations of bodies, men and women and men and men. You feel nauseous, from the sticky heat and what you know of human nature, and you wonder why you have come. But you have been told that a man must go to the bath-house at least once in his life, or he won’t believe it when other people tell him what goes on.

‘The truth is,’ Mary Shelton says, ‘I would have tried to see you, Master Secretary, even if you had not sent for me.’ Her hand shakes; she takes a sip of wine, looks deeply into the bowl as if divining, then raises her eloquent eyes. ‘I pray I never pass another day like this one. Nan Cobham wants to see you. Marjorie Horsman. All the women of the bedchamber.’

‘Have you something to tell me? Or is it that you just want to cry on my papers and make the ink run?’

She puts down the cup and gives him her hands. He is moved by the gesture, it is like a child showing you her hands are clean. ‘Shall we try to disentangle it?’ he asks gently.

All day from the queen’s rooms, shouting, slamming doors, running feet: hissed conversations in undertones. ‘I wish I were gone from the court,’ Shelton says. ‘I wish myself in another place.’ She slides her hands away. ‘I should be married. Is that too much, to be married and have some children, while I am still young?’

‘Now, do not be sorry for yourself. I thought you were marrying Harry Norris.’

‘So did I.’

‘I know that there was some falling out between you, but that would be a year ago now?’

‘I suppose Lady Rochford told you. You should not listen, you know, she invents things. But yes, it was true, I quarrelled with Harry, or he quarrelled with me, and it was over young Weston coming to the queen’s rooms in and out of season, and Harry thought he was casting his fancy to me. And so thought I. But I did not encourage Weston, I swear.’

He laughs. ‘But Mary, you do encourage men. It is what you do. You cannot help it.’

‘So Harry Norris said, I will give that puppy a kick in the ribs he will not forget. Though Harry is not that sort of man, to go around kicking puppies. And the queen my cousin said, no kicking in my chamber, if you please. Harry said, by your royal favour I will take him out to the courtyard and kick him, and –’ she cannot help laugh, though shakily, miserably, ‘– and Francis standing there all the time, though they were talking about him as if he were absent. So Francis said, well, I should like to see you kick me, for at your great age, Norris, you will wobble over –’

‘Mistress,’ he says, ‘can you make it short?’

‘But they go on like this an hour or more, scrapping and digging and scratching around for favour. And my lady the queen is never weary of it, she eggs them on. Then Weston, he said, do not agitate yourself, gentle Norris, for I come not here for Mistress Shelton, I come for the sake of another, and you know who that is. And Anne said, no, tell me, I cannot guess. Is it Lady Worcester? Is it Lady Rochford? Come, tell us, Francis. Tell us who you love. And he said, madam, it is yourself.’

‘And what did the queen say?’

‘Oh, she defied him. She said, you must not say so, for my brother George will come and kick you too, for the honour of the Queen of England. And she was laughing. But then Harry Norris quarrelled with me, about Weston. And Weston quarrelled with him, about the queen. And both of them quarrelled with William Brereton.’

‘Brereton? What had he to do with it?’

‘Well, he happened to come in.’ She frowns. ‘I think it was then. Or it was some other time that he happened to come in. And the queen said, now, here is the man for me, Will is one who shoots his arrow straight. But she was tormenting them all. You cannot understand her. One moment she is reading out Master Tyndale’s gospel. Next moment…’ She shrugs. ‘She opens her lips and out slides the devil’s tail.’

So then, by Shelton’s account, a year passes. Harry Norris and Mistress Shelton are speaking again, and soon they have made it up and Harry is creeping to her bed. And all is as before. Until today: 29 April. ‘This morning it began with Mark,’ Mary Shelton says. ‘You know how he hovers? He is always outside the queen’s presence chamber. And as she goes by she does not speak to him but laughs and tugs his sleeve or knocks his elbow, and once she snapped off the feather in his cap.’

‘I never heard of this as love play,’ he says. ‘Is it something they do in France?’

‘And this morning she said, oh, look at this little doggie, and she tousled him and pulled his ears. And his silly eyes brimming. Then she said to him, why are you so sad, Mark, you have no business to be sad, you are here to entertain us. And he offered to kneel down, saying, “Madam –” and she cut him off. She said to him, oh for Mary’s sweet sake, stand on your two feet, I do you favours in noticing you at all, what do you expect, do you think I should talk to you as if you were a gentleman? I cannot, Mark, because you are an inferior person. He said, no, no madam, I do not expect a word, a look suffices for me. So she waited. Because she expected him to praise the power of her glance. That her eyes are lodestones, and so on. But he did not, he just burst into tears, and “Farewell,” he said, and walked away. Just turned his back on her. And she laughed. And so we went in to her chamber.’

‘Take your time,’ he says.

‘Anne said, does he think I am some item from Paris Garden? That is, you know –’

‘I know what Paris Garden is.’

She blushes. ‘Of course you do. And Lady Rochford said, it were well if Mark were dropped from a height, like your dog Purkoy. Then the queen burst into tears. Then she struck Lady Rochford. And Lady Rochford said, do that again and I will buffet you back, you are no queen but a mere knight’s daughter, Master Secretary Cromwell has your measure, your day is over, madam.’

He says, ‘Lady Rochford is getting ahead of herself.’

‘Then Harry Norris came in.’

‘I was wondering where he was.’

‘He said, what is this commotion? Anne said, do me a good turn, take away my brother’s wife and drown her, then he can have a fresh one who may do him some good. And Harry Norris was amazed. Anne said to him, did you not swear you would do anything I wanted? That you would walk barefoot to China for me? And Harry said, you know he is droll, he said, I think it was barefoot to Walsingham I offered. Yes, she said, and repent your sins there, because you look for dead men’s shoes, if aught came to the king but good, you would look to have me.’

He wants to write down what Shelton says, but he dare not move in case she stops saying it.

‘Then the queen turned to me, and said, Mistress Shelton, you perceive now why he does not marry you? He is in love with me. So he claims, and has claimed this long while. But he will not prove it, by putting Lady Rochford in a sack and carrying her to the riverbank, which I much desire. Then Lady Rochford ran out.’

‘I think I understand why.’

Mary looks up. ‘I know you are laughing at us. But it was horrible. For me it was. Because I thought that it was a jest between them that Harry Norris loved her, and then I saw it was not. I swear he had turned pale and he said to Anne, will you spill all your secrets or only some? And he walked away and he did not even bow to her, and she ran after him. And I do not know what she said, because we were all frozen like statues.’

Spill her secrets. All or only some. ‘Who heard this?’

She shakes her head. ‘Perhaps a dozen people. They could not help but hear it.’

And then, it appears, the queen was frantic. ‘She looked at us ranged about her, and she wanted to get Norris back, she said a priest must be fetched, she said Harry must take an oath that he knew her to be chaste, a faithful good wife. She said he must take back everything said, and she would take it back too, and they would put their hands on the Bible in her chamber, and then everybody would know that it was idle talk. She is terrified Lady Rochford will go to the king.’

‘I know Jane Rochford likes to carry bad news. But not such bad news as that.’ Not to a husband. That his dear friend and his wife have discussed his death, with a view to how they will console themselves after.

It is treason. Possibly. To envisage the death of the king. The law recognises it: how short the step, from dreaming to desiring to encompassing. We call it ‘imagining’ his death: the thought is father to the deed, and the deed is born raw, ugly, premature. Mary Shelton does not know what she has witnessed. She thinks it is a lovers’ quarrel. She thinks it is one incident in her own long career of love and love’s misfortunes. ‘I doubt,’ she says dully, ‘that Harry Norris will marry me now, or even trouble himself pretending he is going to marry me. If you had asked me last week has the queen given way to him, I would have told you no, but when I look at them now, it is clear such words have passed between them, such looks, and how can I know what deeds? I think…I don’t know what to think.’

‘I’ll marry you, Mary,’ he says.

She laughs, in spite of herself. ‘Master Secretary, you will not, you are always saying you will marry this lady and that, but we know you hold yourself a great prize.’

‘Ah well. So it’s back to Paris Garden.’ He shrugs, he smiles; but he feels the need to be brisk with her, to hurry on. ‘Now understand me, you must be discreet and silent. The thing you must do here – you and the other ladies – you must protect yourselves.’

Mary is struggling. ‘It could not tend to bad, could it? If the king hears, he will know how to take it, yes? He may suppose it is all light words? No harm? It is all conjecture, perhaps I have spoken in haste, one cannot know that anything has passed between them, I could not swear it.’ He thinks, but you will swear it; by and by you will. ‘You see, Anne is my cousin.’ The girl’s voice falters. ‘She has done everything for me –’

Even pushed you into the king’s bed, he thinks, when she was carrying a child: to keep Henry in the family.

‘What will happen to her?’ Mary’s eyes are solemn. ‘Will he leave her? There is talk but Anne does not believe it.’

‘She must stretch her credulity a little.’

‘She says, I can always get him back, I know how. And you know she always has. But whatever has happened with Harry Norris, I will not continue with her, for I know she would take him from me and no scruple, if she has not already. And gentle-women cannot be on such terms. And Lady Rochford cannot continue. And Jane Seymour is removed, for – well, I will not say why. And Lady Worcester must go home for her lying-in this summer.’

He sees the young woman’s eyes move, calculating, counting. To her, a problem is looming: a problem of staffing Anne’s privy chamber. ‘But I suppose England has enough ladies,’ she says. ‘It were well she began again. Yes, a new beginning. Lady Lisle in Calais looks to send her daughters over. I mean, her daughters from her first husband. They are pretty girls and I think they will do very well when they are trained.’

It is as if Anne Boleyn has entranced them, men and women both, so that they cannot see what is happening around them and cannot hear the meaning of their own words. They have lived in stupidity such a long season. ‘So do you write to Honor Lisle,’ Mary says, with perfect confidence. ‘She will be for ever your debtor if she gets her girls at court.’

‘And you? What will you do?’

‘I’ll take thought,’ she says. She is never put down for long. That’s why men like her. There will be other times, other men, other manners. She hops to her feet. She plants a kiss on his cheek.

It is Saturday evening.

Sunday: ‘I wish you had been here this morning,’ Lady Rochford says with relish. ‘It was something to witness. The king and Anne in the great window together, so everybody in the courtyard below could see them. The king has heard about the quarrel she had with Norris yesterday. Well, the whole of England has heard of it. You could see the king was beside himself, his face was purple. She stood with her hands clasped at her breast…’ She shows him, clasping her own hands. ‘You know, like Queen Esther, in the king’s great tapestry?’

He can picture it easily, that richly textured scene, woven courtiers gathered about their distressed queen. One maid, as if unconcerned, carries a lute, perhaps en route to Esther’s apartments; others gossip aside, the women’s smooth faces uptilted, the men’s heads inclined. Among these courtiers with their jewels and elaborate hats he has looked in vain for his own face. Perhaps he is somewhere else, plotting: a snapped skein, a broken end, an intractable knot of threads. ‘Like Esther,’ he says. ‘Yes.’

‘Anne must have sent for the little princess,’ Lady Rochford says, ‘because then a nurse heaved up with her, and Anne snatched her and held her up, as if to say, “Husband, how can you doubt this is your daughter?”’

‘You are supposing that was his question. You could not hear what was said.’ His voice is cold; he hears it himself, its coldness surprises him.

‘Not from where I stood. But I doubt it bodes any good to her.’

‘Did you not go to her, to comfort her? She being your mistress?’

‘No. I went looking for you.’ She checks herself, her tone suddenly sobered. ‘We – her women – we want to speak out and save ourselves. We are afraid she is not honest and that we will be blamed for concealing it.’

‘In the summer,’ he says, ‘not last summer but the one before, you said to me that you believed the queen was desperate to get a child, and was afraid the king could not give her one. You said he could not satisfy the queen. Will you repeat it now?’

‘I’m surprised you don’t have a note of our talk.’

‘It was a long talk, and – with respect to you, my lady – more full of hints than particulars. I want to know what you would stand to, if you were to be put on oath before a court.’

‘Who is to be tried?’

‘That is what I am hoping to determine. With your kind help.’

He hears these phrases flow out of him. With your kind help. Yourself not offended. Saving his Majesty.

‘You know it has come out about Norris and Weston,’ she says. ‘How they have declared their love for her. They are not the only ones.’

‘You do not take it as just a form of courtesy?’

‘For courtesy, you do not sneak around in the dark. On and off barges. Slipping through gates by torchlight. Bribes to the porters. It has been happening these two years and more. You cannot know who you have seen, where and when. You would be sharp if you could catch any of them.’ She pauses, to be sure she has his attention. ‘Let us say the court is at Greenwich. You see a certain gentleman, one who waits on the king. And you suppose his tour of duty is over, and you imagine him to be in the country; but then you are about your own duties with the queen, and you see him whisking around the corner. You think, why are you here? Norris, is that you? Many a time I have thought some one of them is at Westminster, and then I spy him at Richmond. Or he is supposed to be at Greenwich, and there he is at Hampton Court.’

‘If they change their duties among themselves, it is no matter.’

‘But I do not mean that. It is not the times, Master Secretary. It is the places. It is the queen’s gallery, it is her antechamber, it is her threshold, and sometimes the garden stair, or a little gate left unlocked by some inadvertence.’ She leans forward, and her fingertips brush his hand as it lies on his papers. ‘I mean they come and go by night. And if anyone enquires why they should be there, they say they are on a private message from the king, they cannot say to whom.’

He nods. The privy chamber carry unwritten messages, it is one of their tasks. They come and go between the king and his peers, sometimes between the king and foreign ambassadors, and no doubt between the king and his wife. They do not brook questioning. They cannot be held to account.

Lady Rochford sits back. She says softly, ‘Before they were married, she used to practise with Henry in the French fashion. You know what I mean.’

‘I have no idea what you mean. Were you ever in France yourself?’

‘No. I thought you were.’

‘As a soldier. Among the military, the ars amatoria is not refined.’

She considers this. A hardness creeps into her voice. ‘You wish to shame me out of saying what I must say, but I am no virgin girl, I see no reason not to speak. She induced Henry to put his seed otherwise than he should have. So now he berates her, that she caused him to do so.’

‘Opportunities lost. I understand.’ Seed gone to waste, slid away in some crevice of her body or down her throat. When he could have been seeing to her in the honest English way.

‘He calls it a filthy proceeding. But God love him, Henry does not know where filth begins. My husband George is always with Anne. But I’ve told you that before.’

‘He is her brother, I suppose it is natural.’

‘Natural? Is that what you call it?’

‘My lady, I know you would like it to be a crime to be a fond brother and a cold husband. But there is no statute that makes it so, and no precedent for your relief.’ He hesitates. ‘Do not think I am without sympathy for you.’

For what can a woman like Jane Rochford do when circumstances are against her? A widow well-provided can cut a figure in the world. A merchant’s wife can with diligence and prudence take business matters into her hands, and squirrel away a store of gold. A labouring woman ill-used by a husband can enlist robust friends, who will stand outside her house all night and bang pans, till the unshaven churl tips out in his shirt to chase them off, and they pull up his shirt and mock his member. But a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master who spares the whip. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘that your father Lord Morley is a scholar I hold in great esteem. Have you never advised with him?’

‘What is the use?’ She is scornful. ‘When we married he said he was doing his best for me. It is what fathers say. He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would to selling a hound puppy. If you think there’s a warm kennel and a dish of broken meats, what more do you need to know? You don’t ask the animal what it wants.’

‘So you have never thought you might be released from your marriage?’

‘No, Master Cromwell. My father went into everything thoroughly. Just as thoroughly as you would expect, of a friend of yours. No previous promise, no pre-contract, no shadow of one. Even you and Cranmer between you couldn’t get us an annulment. On the wedding day we sat at our supper with our friends, and George told me, I am only doing this because my father says I must. That was good hearing, you will agree, for a girl of twenty who cherished hopes of love. And I defied him, I said the same back to him: I said, if my father did not enforce me, I would be far from you, sir. So then the light faded and we were put to bed. He put his hand out and flipped my breast and said, I have seen plenty of these, and many better. He said, lie down, open your body, let us do our duty and make my father a grandfather, and then if we have a son we can live apart. I said to him, then do it if you think you can, pray God you may set seed tonight, and then you may take your dibber away and I need not look at it again.’ A little laugh. ‘But I am barren, you see. Or so I must believe. It may be that my husband’s seed is bad or weak. God knows, he spends it in some dubious places. Oh, he is a gospeller, is George, St Matthew be his guide and St Luke protect him. No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out “Glory be” and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off. Nothing is forbidden to George, you see. He’d go to it with a terrier bitch if she wagged her tail at him and said bow-wow.’

For once he is struck silent. He knows he will never get it out of his mind, the picture of George in a hairy grapple with a little ratting dog.

She says, ‘I am afraid he has given me a disease and that is why I have never conceived a child. I think there is something destroying me from the inside. I think I might die of it one day.’

She had asked him once, if I die suddenly, have them cut open my corpse to look inside. In those days she thought Rochford might poison her; now she is sure he has done so. He murmurs, my lady, you have borne a great deal. He looks up. ‘But this is not to the point. If George knows something about the queen that the king should be told, I can bring him to witness, but I cannot know he will speak out. I can hardly compel the brother against the sister.’

She says, ‘I am not talking about his being a witness. I am telling you he spends time in her chamber. Alone with her. And the door closed.’

‘In conversation?’

‘I have been to the door and heard no voices.’

‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘they join in silent prayer.’

‘I have seen them kiss.’

‘A brother may kiss his sister.’

‘He may not, not in that way.’

He picks up his pen. ‘Lady Rochford, I cannot write down, “He kissed her in that way.”’

‘His tongue in her mouth. And her tongue in his.’

‘You want me to record that?’

‘If you fear you won’t remember it.’

He thinks, if this comes out in a law court the city will be in an uproar, if it is mentioned in Parliament the bishops will be frigging themselves on their benches. He waits, his pen poised. ‘Why would she do this, such a crime against nature?’

‘The better to rule. Surely you see it? She is lucky with Elizabeth, the child is like her. But suppose she gets a boy and it has Weston’s long face? Or it looks like Will Brereton, what might the king say to that? But they cannot call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn.’

Brereton too. He makes a note. He remembers how Brereton once joked with him he could be in two places at once: a chilly joke, a hostile joke, and now, he thinks, now at last, I laugh. Lady Rochford says, ‘Why do you smile?’

‘I have heard that in the queen’s rooms, among her lovers, there was talk of the king’s death. Did George ever join in with it?’

‘It would kill Henry if he knew how they laugh at him. How his member is discussed.’

‘I want you to think hard,’ he says. ‘Be sure of what you are doing. If you give evidence against your husband, in a court of law or to the council, you may find yourself a lonely woman in the years to come.’

Her face says, am I now so rich in friends? ‘I will not bear the blame,’ she says. ‘You will, Master Secretary. I am thought a woman of no great wit or penetration. And you are what you are, a man of resource who spares no one. It will be thought that you drew the truth out of me, whether I was willing or no.’

It seems to him little more need be said. ‘In order to sustain that notion, it will be necessary for you to contain your pleasure and feign distress. Once George is arrested, you must petition for mercy for him.’

‘I can do that.’ Jane Rochford puts out the tip of her tongue, as if the moment were sugared and she can taste it. ‘I am safe, for the king will take no notice, I can guarantee.’

‘Be advised by me. Talk to no one.’

‘Be advised by me. Talk to Mark Smeaton.’

He tells her, ‘I am going to my house at Stepney. I have asked Mark for supper.’

‘Why not entertain him here?’

‘There has been disturbance enough, don’t you think?’

‘Disturbance? Oh, I see,’ she says.

He watches her out. The door does not close before Rafe and Call-Me-Risley are in the room with him. Pale and set, both of them steady: from which he knows they have not been eavesdropping. ‘The king wishes inquiries to begin,’ Wriothesley says. ‘Utmost discretion, but all possible speed. He can no longer ignore the talk, after the incident. The quarrel. He has not approached Norris.’

‘No,’ Rafe says. ‘They think, the gentlemen in the privy chamber, that it has all blown over. The queen has calmed herself, by all accounts. Tomorrow’s jousts are to go ahead as usual.’

‘I wonder,’ he says, ‘would you go to Richard Sampson, Rafe, and tell him that, entre nous, matters are out of our hands? It may not be necessary to sue for nullity after all. Or at least, I think the queen will be disposed to give way to anything the king requires of her. She has not much of a negotiating position left. I think we have Henry Norris within bow shot. Weston. Oh, and Brereton too.’

Rafe Sadler raises his eyebrows. ‘I would have said the queen hardly knew him.’

‘It seems he has the habit of walking in at the wrong moment.’

‘You seem very calm, sir,’ Call-Me says.

‘Yes. Learn from it.’

‘What does Lady Rochford say?’

He frowns. ‘Rafe, before you go to Sampson, do you sit down there, at the head of the table. Pretend you are the king’s council, meeting in privy session.’

‘All of them, sir?’

‘Norfolk and Fitzwilliam and all. Now, Call-Me. You are a lady of the queen’s bedchamber. On your feet. May we have a curtsey? Thank you. Now, I am a page who fetches you a stool. And a cushion on it. Sit down and give the councillors a smile.’

‘If you will,’ Rafe says uncertainly. But then the spirit of the thing seizes him. He reaches forward and tickles Call-Me under the chin. ‘What have you to tell us, delicate madam? Pray, divulge, and part your ruby lips.’

‘This beautiful lady alleges,’ he says – he, Cromwell, with a wave of his hand – ‘that the queen is of light conditions. That her conduct gives rise to suspicion of evil-doing, of flouting of the laws of God, even if no one has witnessed actions contrary to statute.’

Rafe clears his throat. ‘Some might say, madam, why did you not speak of this before?’

‘Because it was treason to speak against the queen.’ Mr Wriothesley is a ready man, and maidenly excuses flow from him. ‘We had no choice but to shield her. What could we do, but reason with her, and persuade her to give up her light ways? And yet we could not. She kept us in awe. She is jealous of anyone who has an admirer. She wants to take him from her. She does not scruple to threaten anyone she thinks has erred, whether matron or maid, and she can ruin a woman that way, look at Elizabeth Worcester.’

‘So now you can no longer forbear to speak out?’ Rafe says.

‘Now burst into tears, Wriothesley,’ he instructs.

‘Consider it done.’ Call-Me dabs his cheek.

‘What a play it makes.’ He sighs. ‘I wish now we could all take off our disguises and go home.’

He is thinking, Sion Madoc, a boatman on the river at Windsor: ‘She goes to it with her brother.’

Thurston, his cook: ‘They are standing in a line frigging their members.’

He remembers what Thomas Wyatt told him: ‘That is Anne’s tactic, she says yes, yes, yes, then she says no…the worst of it is her hinting to me, her boasting almost, that she says no to me, but yes to others.’

He had asked Wyatt, how many lovers do you think she has had? And Wyatt had answered, ‘A dozen? Or none? Or a hundred?’

He himself thought Anne cold, a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price. But this coldness – that was before she was wed. Before Henry heaved himself on top of her, and off again, and she was left, after he had stumbled back to his own apartments, with the bobbing circles of candlelight on the ceiling, the murmurs of her women, the basin of warm water and the cloth: and Lady Rochford’s voice as she scrubs herself, ‘Careful, madam, do not wash away a Prince of Wales.’ Soon she is alone in the dark, with the scent of masculine sweat on the linen, and perhaps one useless maidservant turning and snuffling on a pallet: she is alone with the small sounds of river and palace. And she speaks, and no one answers, except the girl who mutters in her sleep: she prays, and no one answers; and she rolls on to her side, and smooths her hands over her thighs, and touches her own breasts.

So what if, one day, it’s yes, yes, yes, yes, yes? To whoever happens to be standing by when the thread of her virtue snaps? Even if it’s her brother?

He says to Rafe, to Call-Me, ‘I have heard such matter today as I never thought to hear in a Christian country.’

They wait, the young gentlemen: their eyes on his face. Call-Me says, ‘Am I still a lady, or shall I take my seat and pick up my pen?’

He thinks, what we do here in England, we send our children into other households when they are young, and so it is not rare for a brother and sister to meet, when they are grown, as if for the first time. Think how it must be then: this fascinating stranger whom you know, this mirror of you. You fall in love, just a little: for an hour, an afternoon. And then you make a joke of it; the residual drag of tenderness remains. It is a feeling that civilises men, and makes them behave better, to dependent women, than otherwise they might. But to go further, to trespass on forbidden flesh, to leap the great gap from a fleeting thought to action…Priests tell you that temptation slides into sin and you cannot put a hair between. But surely that is not true. You kiss the woman’s cheek, very well; then you bite her neck? You say, ‘Sweet sister,’ and then next minute you flip her back and cant her skirts up? Surely not. There is a room to be crossed and buttons to be undone. You don’t sleepwalk into it. You don’t fornicate inadvertently. You don’t fail to see the other party, who she is. She doesn’t hide her face.

But then, it may be that Jane Rochford is lying. She has cause.

‘I am not often perplexed,’ he says, ‘about how to proceed, but I find I have to deal with a matter I hardly dare speak of. I can only partly describe it, so I do not know how to draw up a charge sheet. I feel like one of those men who shows a freak at a fair.’

At a fair the drunken churls throw down their money, and then they disdain what you offer. ‘Call that a freak? That’s nothing to my wife’s mother!’

And all their fellows slap them on the back and chortle.

But then you say to them, well, neighbours, I showed you that only to test your mettle. Part with a penny more, and I shall show you what I have here in the back of the tent. It is a sight to make hardened men quail. And I guarantee that you have never seen devil’s work like it.

And then they look. And then they throw up on their boots. And then you count the money. And lock it in your strongbox.

Mark at Stepney. ‘He has brought his instrument,’ Richard says. ‘His lute.’

‘Tell him to leave it without.’

If Mark was blithe before, he is suspicious now, tentative. On the threshold, ‘I thought, sir, I was to entertain you?’

‘Make no doubt of it.’

‘I had thought there would be a great company, sir.’

‘You know my nephew, Master Richard Cromwell?’

‘Still, I am happy to play for you. Perhaps you want me to hear your singing children?’

‘Not today. In the circumstances you might be tempted to overpraise them. But will you sit down, and take a cup of wine with us?’

‘It would be a charity if you could put us in the way of a rebec player,’ Richard says. ‘We have but the one, and he is always running off to Farnham to see his family.’

‘Poor boy,’ he says in Flemish, ‘I think he is homesick.’

Mark looks up. ‘I did not know you spoke my language.’

‘I know you did not. Or you would not have used it to be so disrespectful of me.’

‘I am sure, sir, I never meant any harm.’ Mark can’t remember, what he’s said or not said about his host. But his face shows he recalls the general tenor of it.

‘You forecast I should be hanged.’ He spreads his arms. ‘Yet I live and breathe. But I am in a difficulty, and although you do not like me, I have no choice but to come to you. So I ask your charity.’

Mark sits, his lips slightly parted, his back rigid, and one foot pointing to the door, showing he would very much like to be out of it.

‘You see.’ He puts his palms together: as if Mark were a saint on a plinth. ‘My master the king and my mistress the queen are at odds. Everybody knows it. Now, my dearest wish is to reconcile them. For the comfort of the whole realm.’

Give the boy this: he is not without spirit. ‘But, Master Secretary, the word about the court is, you are keeping company with the queen’s enemies.’

‘For the better to find out their practices,’ he says.

‘If I could believe that.’

He sees Richard shift on his stool, impatient.

‘These are bitter days,’ he says. ‘I do not remember such a time of tension and misery, not since the cardinal came down. In truth I do not blame you, Mark, if you find it hard to trust me, there is such ill-feeling at court that no one trusts anyone else. But I come to you because you are close to the queen, and the other gentlemen will not help me. I have the power to reward you, and will make sure you have everything you deserve, if only you can give me some window into the queen’s desires. I need to know why she is so unhappy, and what I can do to remedy it. For it is unlikely she will conceive an heir, while her mind is unquiet. And if she could do that: ah, then all our tears would be dried.’

Mark looks up. ‘Why, it is no wonder she is unhappy,’ he says. ‘She is in love.’

‘With whom?’

‘With me.’

He, Cromwell, leans forward, elbows on the table: then puts a hand up to cover his face.

‘You are amazed,’ Mark suggests.

That is only part of what he feels. I thought, he says to himself, that this would be difficult. But it is like picking flowers. He lowers his hand and beams at the boy. ‘Not so amazed as you might think. For I have watched you, and I have seen her gestures, her eloquent looks, her many indications of favour. And if these are shown in public, then what in private? And of course it is no surprise any woman would be drawn to you. You are a very handsome young man.’

‘Though we thought you were a sodomite,’ Richard says.

‘Not I, sir!’ Mark turns pink. ‘I am as good a man as any of them.’

‘So the queen would give a good account of you?’ he asks, smiling. ‘She has tried you and found you to her liking?’

The boy’s glance slides away, like a piece of silk over glass. ‘I cannot discuss it.’

‘Of course not. But we must draw our own conclusions. She is not an inexperienced woman, I think, she would not be interested in a less than masterly performance.’

‘We poor men,’ Mark says, ‘poor men born, are in no wise inferior in that way.’

‘True,’ he says. ‘Though gentlemen keep that fact from ladies, if they can.’

‘Otherwise,’ Richard says, ‘every duchess would be frolicking in a copse with a woodcutter.’

He cannot help laugh. ‘Only there are so few duchesses and so many woodcutters. There must be competition between them, you would think.’

Mark looks at him as if he is profaning a sacred mystery. ‘If you mean she has other lovers, I have never asked her, I would not ask her, but I know they are jealous of me.’

‘Perhaps she has tried them and found them a disappointment,’ Richard says. ‘And Mark here takes the prize. I congratulate you, Mark.’ With what open Cromwellian simplicity he leans forward and asks, ‘How often?’

‘It cannot be easy to steal the opportunity,’ he suggests. ‘Even though her ladies are complicit.’

‘They are not my friends either,’ Mark says. ‘They would even deny what I have told you. They are friends of Weston, Norris, those lords. I am nothing to them, they ruffle my hair and call me waiting boy.’

‘The queen is your only friend,’ he says. ‘But such a friend!’ He pauses. ‘At some point, it will be necessary for you to say who the others are. You have given us two names.’ Mark looks up, shocked, at the change of tone. ‘Now name them all. And answer Master Richard. How often?’

The boy has frozen under his gaze. But at least he enjoyed his moment in the sun. At least he can say he took Master Secretary by surprise: which few men can say, who are now living.

He waits for Mark. ‘Well, perhaps you are right not to speak. Best to get it down in writing, no? I must say, Mark, my clerks will be as astonished as I am. Their fingers will tremble and they will blot the page. So will the council be astonished, when they hear of your successes. There will be many lords who envy you. You cannot expect their sympathy. “Smeaton, what is your secret?” they will demand. You will blush and say, ah, gentlemen, I cannot impart. But you will impart all, Mark, for they will make you. And you will do it freely, or do it enforced.’

He turns away from the boy, as Mark’s face falls open in dismay, as his body begins to shake: five rash minutes of boasting, in one ungratified life and, like nervous tradesmen, the gods at once send in their account. Mark has lived in a story of his own devising, where the beautiful princess in her tower hears beyond her casement music of unearthly sweetness. She looks out and sees by moonlight the humble musician with his lute. But unless the musician turns out to be a prince in disguise, this story cannot end well. The doors open and ordinary faces crowd in, the surface of the dream is shattered: you are in Stepney on a warm night at the beginning of spring, the last birdsong is fading into the hush of twilight, somewhere a bolt rattles, a stool is scraped across the floor, a dog barks below the window and Thomas Cromwell says to you, ‘We all want our supper, let’s get on, here is the paper and the ink. Here is Master Wriothesley, he will write for us.’

‘I can give no names,’ the boy says.

‘You mean, the queen has no lovers but you? So she tells you. But I think, Mark, she has been deceiving you. Which she could easily do, you must admit, if she has been deceiving the king.’

‘No.’ The poor boy shakes his head. ‘I think she is chaste. I do not know how I came to say what I said.’

‘Nor do I. No one had hurt you, had they? Or coerced you, or tricked you? You spoke freely. Master Richard is my witness.’

‘I take it back.’

‘I don’t think so.’

There is a pause, while the room repositions itself, figures dispose themselves in the landscape of the evening. Master Secretary says, ‘It’s chilly, we should have a fire lit.’

Just an ordinary household request, and yet Mark thinks they mean to burn him. He jumps off his stool and makes for the door; perhaps the first bit of sense he’s shown, but Christophe is there, broad and amiable, to head him off. ‘Seat yourself, pretty boy,’ Christophe says.

The wood is laid already. Such a long time it takes, to fan the spark. A little, welcome crackle, and the servant withdraws, wiping his hands on his apron, and Mark watches the door close after him, with a lost expression that may be envy, because he would rather be a kitchen hand now or a boy that scours privy pits. ‘Oh, Mark,’ Master Secretary says. ‘Ambition is a sin. So I am told. Though I have never seen how it is different from using your talents, which the Bible commands we do. So here you are, and here I am, and both of us servants of the cardinal at one time. And if he could see us sitting here tonight, do you know, I don’t think he would be the least surprised? Now, to business. Who did you displace in the queen’s bed, was it Norris? Or perhaps you have a rota, like the queen’s chamber servants?’

‘I don’t know. I take it back. I can give you no names.’

‘It is a shame you should suffer alone, if others are culpable. And of course, they are more culpable than you, as they are gentlemen who the king has personally rewarded and made great, and all of them educated men, and some of them of mature years: whereas you are simple and young, and as much to be pitied as punished, I would say. Tell us now about your adultery with the queen and what you know of her dealings with other men, and then if your confession is prompt and full, clear and unsparing, it is possible that the king will show mercy.’

Mark is hardly hearing him. His limbs are trembling and his breathing is short, he is beginning to cry and to stumble over his words. Simplicity is best now, brisk questions requiring easy answers. Richard asks him, ‘You see this person here?’ Christophe points to himself, in case Mark is in doubt. ‘Do you take him for a pleasant fellow?’ Richard asks. ‘Would you like to spend ten minutes alone with him?’

‘Five would do it,’ Christophe predicts.

He says, ‘I explained to you, Mark, that Mr Wriothesley will write down what we say. But he will not necessarily write down what we do. You follow me? That will be just between us.’

Mark says, ‘Mother Mary, help me.’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘We can take you to the Tower where there is a rack.’

‘Wriothesley, may I have a word with you aside?’ He waves Call-Me out of the room and on the threshold speaks in an undertone. ‘It is better not to specify the nature of the pain. As Juvenal says, the mind is its own best torturer. Besides, you should not make empty threats. I will not rack him. I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I needed to rack a sad little fellow like this…what next? Stamping on dormice?’

‘I am reproved,’ Mr Wriothesley says.

He puts his hand on Wriothesley’s arm. ‘Never mind. You are doing very well.’

This is a business that tries the most experienced. He remembers that day in the forge when a hot iron had seared his skin. There was no choice of resisting the pain. His mouth dropped open and a scream flew out and hit the wall. His father ran to him and said ‘Cross your hands,’ and helped him to water and to salve, but afterwards Walter said to him, ‘It’s happened to us all. It’s how you learn. You learn to do things the way your father taught you, and not by some foolish method you hit upon yourself half an hour ago.’

He thinks of this: re-entering the room, he asks Mark, ‘Do you know you can learn from pain?’

But, he explains, the circumstances must be right. To learn, you must have a future: what if someone has chosen this pain for you and they are going to inflict it for as long as they like, and only stop once you’re dead? You can make sense of your suffering, perhaps. You can offer it up for the struggling souls in Purgatory, if you believe in Purgatory. That might work for saints, whose souls are shining white. But not for Mark Smeaton, who is in mortal sin, a self-confessed adulterer. He says, ‘No one wants your pain, Mark. It’s no good to anyone, no one’s interested in it. Not even God himself, and certainly not me. I have no use for your screams. I want words that make sense. Words I can transcribe. You have already spoken them and it will be easy enough to speak them again. So now what you do is your choice. It is your responsibility. You have done enough, by your own account, to damn you. Do not make sinners of us all.’

It may, even now, be necessary to impress on the boy’s imagination the stages on the route ahead: the walk from the room of confinement to the place of suffering: the wait, as the rope is uncoiled or the guiltless iron is set to heat. In that space, every thought that occupies the mind is taken out and replaced by blind terror. Your body is emptied and filled up with dread. The feet stumble, the breath labours. The eyes and ears function but the head can’t make sense of what is seen and heard. Time falsifies itself, moments becoming days. The faces of your torturers loom up like giants or they become impossibly distant, small, like dots. Words are spoken: bring him here, seat him, now it is time. They were words attached to other and common meanings, but if you survive this they will only ever have one meaning and the meaning is pain. The iron hisses as it is lifted from the flame. The rope doubles like a serpent, loops itself, and waits. It is too late for you. You will not speak now, because your tongue has swelled and filled your mouth and language has eaten itself. Later you will speak, when you are carried away from the machinery and set down on straw. I have endured it, you will say. I have come through. And pity and self-love will crack open your heart, so that at the first gesture of kindness – let us say, a blanket or a sip of wine – your heart will overflow, your tongue unstop. Out flow the words. You were not brought to this room to think, but to feel. And in the end you have felt too much for yourself.

But Mark will be spared this; for now he looks up: ‘Master Secretary, will you tell me again what my confession must be? Clear and…what was it? There were four things but I have already forgot them.’ In a thicket of words he is stuck fast, and the more he fights the deeper the thorns rip his flesh. If appropriate, a translation can be made for him, yet his English has always seemed good enough. ‘But you understand me, sir, I cannot tell you what I do not know?’

‘Can you not? Then you must be my guest tonight. Christophe, you can see to that, I think. In the morning, Mark, your own powers will surprise you. Your head will be clear and your memory perfect. You will see that it is not in your interests to protect the gentlemen who share your sin. Because if the position were reversed, believe me, they would not spare a thought for you.’

* * *

He watches Christophe lead Mark away by the hand, as one might lead a simpleton. He waves away Richard and Call-Me to their suppers. He had intended to join them, but he finds he wants nothing, or only a dish he ate as a boy, a simple salad of purslane, the leaves picked that morning and left wrapped in a damp cloth. He ate it then for want of better and it did not stave off hunger. Now it is enough. When the cardinal fell, he had found posts for many of his poor servants, taking in some himself; if Mark had been less insolent, he might have taken him in too. Then he would not be a ruined being, as now he is ruined. His affectations would have been kindly ridiculed, till he became more manly. His expertise would have been lent out to other households and he would have been shown how to value himself and cost out his time. He would been shown how to make money for himself, and put in the way of a wife: instead of spending his best years snuffling and scraping outside the apartments of a king’s wife, and having her jog his elbow and snap the feather in his hat.

At midnight, after the whole household has retired, a message from the king comes, to say that he has called off this week’s visit to Dover. The jousts, however, will go ahead. Norris is listed, and George Boleyn. They are drawn on opposite teams, one for the challengers, one for the defenders: perhaps they will damage each other.

He does not sleep. His thoughts race. He thinks, I never lay awake a night for love, though poets tells me that is the procedure. Now I lie awake for its opposite. But then, he does not hate Anne, he is indifferent to her. He does not even hate Francis Weston, any more than you hate a biting midge; you just wonder why it was created. He pities Mark, but then, he thinks, we take him for a boy: when I was as old as Mark is now, I had crossed the sea and the frontiers of Europe. I had lain screaming in a ditch and hauled myself out of it, and got myself on the road: not once but twice, once in flight from my father and once from the Spanish on the battlefield. When I was as old as Mark is now, or Francis Weston, I had distinguished myself in the houses of the Portinari, the Frescobaldi, and long before I was the age of George Boleyn I had dealt for them in the exchanges of Europe; I had broken down doors in Antwerp; I had come home to England, a changed man. I had made over my language, and to my exultation, and unexpectedly, I spoke my native tongue with more fluency than when I went away; I commended me to the cardinal, and at the same time, I was marrying a wife, I was proving myself in the law courts, I would go into court and smile at the judges and talk, my expertise laggard to my presentation, and the judges were so happy that I smiled at them and didn’t smack them round the head, that they saw the case my way, often as not. The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.

He thinks of lawsuits he has never thought of in years. Whether the judgement was good. Whether he would have given it against himself.

He wonders if he will ever sleep, and what he will dream. It is only in his dreams that he is private. Thomas More used to say you should build yourself a retreat, a hermitage, within your own house. But that was More: able to slam the door in everyone’s face. In truth you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self. More thought you could, but in the end he had men he called heretics dragged to his house in Chelsea, so he could persecute them conveniently in the bosom of his family. You can insist on separation, if you must: go to your cabinet and say, ‘Leave me alone to read.’ But outside the room, you can hear breathing and scuffling, as a seething discontent builds up, a rumble of expectation: he is a public man, he belongs to us, when will he come forth? You cannot blank it out, the shuffle of the feet of the body politic.

He turns over in bed and says a prayer. In the depth of the night, he hears screaming. It is more like the wail of a child’s nightmare than a man’s scream of pain, and he thinks, half-asleep, shouldn’t some woman be doing something about that? Then he thinks, it must be Mark. What are they doing to him? I said do nothing yet.

But he does not stir. He does not think his household would go against his orders. He wonders if they are asleep in Greenwich. The armoury is too near the palace itself, and the hours before a joust are often alive with the tap of hammers. The beating, the shaping, the welding, the polishing in the polishing mill, these operations are complete; there is just some last-minute riveting, an oiling and easing, final adjustments to please the anxious combatants.

He wonders, why did I leave Mark that space to boast, to undo himself? I could have condensed the process; I could have told him what I wanted, and threatened him. But I encouraged him; I did it so that he would be complicit. If he told the truth about Anne, he is guilty. If he lied about Anne, he is hardly innocent. I was prepared, if necessary, to put him under duress. In France, torture is usual, as necessary as salt to meat; in Italy, it is a sport for the piazza. In England, the law does not countenance it. But it can be used, at a nod from the king: on a warrant. It is true there is a rack at the Tower. No one withstands it. No one. For most men, since the way it works is so obvious, a glimpse of it is enough.

He thinks, I will tell Mark that. It will make him feel better about himself.

He gathers the sheet about him. Next moment, Christophe comes in to wake him. His eyes seem to flinch from the light. He sits up. ‘Oh, Jesus. I have not slept all night. Why was Mark screaming?’

The boy laughs. ‘We locked him in with Christmas. I thought of it, myself. You remember when I first saw the star in its sleeves? I said, master, what is that machine that is all over points? I thought it was an engine for torture. Well, it is dark in Christmas. He fell against the star and it impaled him. Then the peacock wings came out of their shroud and brushed his face with fingers. And he thought a phantom was shut up with him in the dark.’

He says, ‘You must do without me for an hour.’

‘You are not ill, God forbid?’

‘No, just wretched with lack of sleep.’

‘Pull the covers over your head, and lie as one dead,’ Christophe advises. ‘I shall come back in an hour with bread and ale.’

When Mark tumbles out of the room he is grey with shock. Feathers adhere to his clothes, not peacock feathers but fluff from the wings of parish seraphs, and smudged gilding from the Three Kings’ robes. Names run out of his mouth so fluently that he has to check him; the boy’s legs threaten to give way and Richard has to hold him up. He has never had this problem before, the problem of having frightened someone too much. ‘Norris’ is somewhere in the babble, ‘Weston’ is there, so far so likely: and then Mark names courtiers so fast that their names merge and fly, he hears Brereton and says, ‘Write that down,’ he swears he hears Carew, also Fitzwilliam, and Anne’s almoner and the Archbishop of Canterbury; he is in there himself of course, and at one point the child alleges Anne has committed adultery with her own husband. ‘Thomas Wyatt…’ Mark pipes…

‘No, not Wyatt.’

Christophe leans forward and flicks his knuckles against the side of the boy’s head. Mark stops. He looks around, wonderingly, for the source of the pain. Then once again he is confessing and confessing. He has worked through the privy chamber from gentlemen to grooms and he is naming persons unknown, probably cooks and kitchen boys he knew in his former less exalted life.

‘Put him back with the ghost,’ he says, and Mark gives one scream, and is silent.

‘You have had to do with the queen how many times?’ he asks.

Mark says, ‘A thousand.’

Christophe gives him a little slap.

‘Three times or four.’

‘Thank you.’

Mark says, ‘What will happen to me?’

‘That rests with the court who will try you.’

‘What will happen to the queen?’

‘That rests with the king.’

‘Nothing good,’ Wriothesley says: and laughs.

He turns. ‘Call-Me. You’re early today?’

‘I could not sleep. A word, sir?’

So today the positions are reversed, it is Call-Me-Risley who is taking him aside, frowning. ‘You will have to bring in Wyatt, sir. You take it too much to heart, this charge his father laid on you. If it comes to it, you cannot protect him. The court has talked for years about what he may have done with Anne. He stands first in suspicion.’

He nods. It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.

But he decides to give Wriothesley an explanation he can follow. ‘It is not Wyatt,’ he says, ‘who stands in my way with the king. It is not Wyatt who turns me out of the privy chamber when I need the king’s signature. It is not he who is continually dropping slander against me like poison into Henry’s ear.’

Mr Wriothesley looks at him speculatively. ‘I see. It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you.’ He smiles. ‘I admire you, sir. You are deft in these matters, and without false compunction.’

He is not sure he wants Wriothesley to admire him. Not on those grounds. He says, ‘It may be that any of these gentlemen who are named could disarm suspicion. Or if suspicion remained, they could by some appeal stay the king’s hand. Call-Me, we are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.’

Wriothesley nods. ‘But still I say, bring in Thomas Wyatt. If you don’t arrest him your new friends will. And I have been wondering, sir, forgive me if I am persistent, but what will happen afterwards with your new friends? If the Boleyns go down, and it seems they must, the supporters of the Princess Mary will take the credit. They will not thank you for the part you have played. They may speak you fair now, but they will never forgive you for Fisher and More. They will turn you out of office, and they may destroy you completely. Carew, the Courtenays, those people, they will have all to rule.’

‘No. The king will have all to rule.’

‘But they will persuade him and entice him. I mean Margaret Pole’s children, the old noble houses – they take it as natural they should have sway and they mean to have it. They will undo all the good you have done these last five years. And also they say that Edward Seymour’s sister, if he marries her, she will take him back to Rome.’

He grins. ‘Well, Call-Me, who will you back in a fight, Thomas Cromwell or Mistress Seymour?’

But of course Call-Me is right. His new allies hold him cheap. They take their triumph as natural, and for a mere promise of forgiveness he is to follow them and work for them and repent everything he has done. He says, ‘I do not claim I can tell the future, but I do know one or two things such folk are ignorant of.’

One can never be sure what Wriothesley is reporting to Gardiner. Hopefully, matter that will cause Gardiner to scratch his head in puzzlement, and quiver in alarm. He says, ‘What do you hear from France? I understand there is much talk of the book that Winchester wrote, justifying the king’s supremacy. The French believe he wrote it under duress. Does he allow people to think that?’

‘I am sure –’ Wriothesley begins.

He cuts him off. ‘No matter. I find I like the picture it puts in my head, Gardiner whining how he is crushed.’

He thinks, let’s see if that gets back. It is his contention that Call-Me forgets for weeks at a time that he is the bishop’s servant. He is an edgy young man, tense, and Gardiner’s bellowing makes him ill; Cromwell is a congenial master, and easy day-to-day. He has said to Rafe, I quite like Call-Me, you know. I am interested in his career. I like watching him. If I ever broke with him, Gardiner would send another spy, who might be worse.

‘Now,’ he says, turning back to the company, ‘we had better get poor Mark to the Tower.’ The boy has shrunk to his knees, and is begging not to be put back with Christmas. ‘Give him a rest,’ he says to Richard, ‘in a room clear of phantoms. Offer him food. When he is coherent, take his formal statement, and have it well witnessed before he leaves here. If he proves difficult, leave him to Christophe and Master Wriothesley, it is business more fit for them than for you.’ Cromwells do not exhaust themselves on menial work; if they once did, that day has passed. He says, ‘If Mark tries to renege once he is out of here, they will know what to do at the Tower. Once you have his confession secure, and all the names you need, go down to the king at Greenwich. He will be expecting you. Trust the message to no one. Drop the word in his ear yourself.’

Richard pulls Mark Smeaton to his feet, handling him as one might handle a puppet: and with no more ill-will than one would spare for a marionette. Through his mind darts, unprompted, the image of old Bishop Fisher tottering to the scaffold, skeletal and obstinate.

It is already nine in the morning. The dews of May Day have burned from the grass. All over England, green boughs are carried in from the woods. He is hungry. He could eat a cut of mutton: with samphire, if any has been sent up from Kent. He needs to sit down for his barber. He has not perfected the art of dictating letters while being shaved. Perhaps I’ll grow my beard, he thinks. It would save time. Only then, Hans would insist on committing another portrait against me.

At Greenwich by this time, they will be sanding the arena for the jousts. Christophe says, ‘Will the king fight today? Will he fight the Lord Norris and slay him?’

No, he thinks, he will leave that to me. Past the workshops, the store rooms and the jetties, the natural haunt of men such as himself, the pages will be placing silk cushions for the ladies in the towers that overlook the tilt yard. Canvas and rope and tar give way to damask and fine linen. The oil and stench and din, the smell of the river, give way to the perfume of rosewater and the murmurings of the maids as they dress the queen for the day ahead. They sweep away the remnants of her small meal, the crumbs of white bread, the slices of sweet preserves. They bring her petticoats and kirtles and sleeves and she makes choice. She is laced and tied and trussed, she is polished and flounced and studded with gems.

The king – it would be three or four years back and to justify his first divorce – put out a book called A Glass of the Truth. Parts of it, they say, he wrote himself.

Now Anne Boleyn calls for her glass. She sees herself: her jaundiced skin, lean throat, collarbones like twin blades.

1 May 1536: this, surely, is the last day of knighthood. What happens after this – and such pageants will continue – will be no more than a dead parade with banners, a contest of corpses. The king will leave the field. The day will end, broken off, snapped like a shinbone, spat out like smashed teeth. George Boleyn, brother to the queen, will enter the silken pavilion to disarm, laying aside the favours and tokens, the scraps of ribbon the ladies have given him to carry. When he lifts off his helmet he will hand it to his squire, and see the world with misted eyes, falcons emblazoned, leopards couchant, claws, talons, teeth: he will feel his head on his shoulders wobbling as soft as jelly.

Whitehall: that night, knowing Norris is in custody, he goes to the king. A snatched word with Rafe in an outer room: how is he?

‘Well,’ Rafe says, ‘you would expect him to be storming about like Edgar the Peaceable, looking for someone to stick with a javelin.’ They exchange a smile, remembering the supper table at Wolf Hall. ‘But he is calm. Surprisingly so. As if he knew, long ago. In his heart. And by his express wish he is alone.’

Alone: but who would he be with? Useless to expect Gentle Norris whispering towards him. Norris was keeper of the king’s private purse; now one imagines the king’s money loose and rolling down the highway. The angels’ harps are slashed, and discord is general; purse strings are cut, and the silk ties of garments snapped to spill flesh.

As he stands on his threshold, Henry turns his eyes: ‘Crumb,’ he says heavily. ‘Come and sit.’ He waves away the attentions of the groom who hovers by the door. He has wine and pours it himself. ‘Your nephew will have told you what passed at the tilting ground.’ He says softly, ‘He is a good boy, Richard, is he not?’ His gaze is distant, as if he would like to wander off the point. ‘I was among the spectators today, not an actor at all. She of course was as ever: at ease among her women, her countenance very haughty, but then smiling and stopping to converse with this gentleman or that.’ He sniggers, a flat, incredulous sound. ‘Oh yes, she has had some conversation.’

Then the bouts began, the heralds calling out each rider. Henry Norris had some ill-luck. His horse, startled by something, jibbed and laid back its ears, danced and tried to shed its rider. (Horse can fail. Boys can fail. Nerve can fail.) The king sent a message down to Norris, advising him to retire; a substitute would be sent to him, one of the king’s own string of fighting horses, still kept trimmed and tacked in case it should be his sudden pleasure to take the field.

‘It was a usual courtesy,’ Henry explains; and shifts in his chair, like one called to justify himself. He nods: of course, sir. Whether Norris did in fact return to the lists, he is unsure. It was mid-afternoon when Richard Cromwell made his way through the crowds to the gallery, and knelt before the king; and at a word, approached to whisper in his ear. ‘He explained how the musician Mark was taken,’ the king says. ‘He had confessed all, your nephew said. What, confessed freely? I asked him. Your nephew said, nothing was done against Mark. Not a hair of his head harmed.’

He thinks, but I shall have to burn the peacock wings.

‘And then…’ the king says. For a moment he baulks, as Norris’s horse did: and falls silent.

He will not continue. But he, Cromwell, already knows what occurred. Upon hearing the word from Richard, the king rose from his place. His servants eddied about him. He signed to a page, ‘Find out Henry Norris, and tell him I ride to Whitehall, now. I want his company.’

He gave no explanation. He did not tarry. He did not speak to the queen. But covered the miles back, Norris beside him: Norris puzzled, Norris astonished, Norris almost slipping from the saddle with fright. ‘I taxed him with the matter,’ Henry says. ‘With the boy Mark’s confession. He would say nothing, but of his innocence.’ Again that flat, scornful little laugh. ‘But since then, Master Treasurer has questioned him. Norris admits it, he says he loved her. But when Fitz put it to him that he is an adulterer, that he desired my death so he could marry her, he said no, no and no. You will put questions to him, Cromwell, but when you do, tell him again what I told him as we rode. There can be mercy. There may be mercy, if he confesses and names the others.’

‘We have names from Mark Smeaton.’

‘I would not trust him,’ Henry says contemptuously. ‘I would not trust some little fiddle-player with the lives of men I have called my friends. I await some corroboration of his story. We will see what the lady says when she is taken.’

‘Their confessions will be enough, sir, surely. You know who is suspected. Let me take them all in ward.’

But Henry’s mind has strayed. ‘Cromwell, what does it mean, when a woman turns herself about and about in the bed? Offering herself, this way and that? What would put it into her head to do such a thing?’

There is only one answer. Experience, sir. Of men’s desires and her own. He does not need to say it.

‘One way is apt for the procreation of children,’ Henry says. ‘The man lies on her. Holy church sanctions it, on the permitted days. Some churchmen say that though it is a grievous thing for a brother to copulate with a sister, it is still more grievous should a woman sit astride a man, or should a man approach a woman as if she were a bitch. For these practices, and others I will not name, Sodom was destroyed. I fear that any Christian man or woman who is in thrall to such vices will incur a judgement: what do you say? Where would a woman, not bred in a whorehouse, get knowledge of such things?’

‘Women talk among themselves,’ he says. ‘As men do.’

‘But a sober, a godly matron, whose only duty is to get a child?’

‘I suppose she might want to pique her good man’s interest, sir. So he does not venture to Paris Garden or some other ill-reputed place. If, let’s say, they were long married.’

‘But three years? Is that long?’

‘No, sir.’

‘It is not even three.’ For a moment the king has forgotten that we are not talking about himself, but about some notional, God-fearing Englishman, some forester or ploughman. ‘Where would she get the idea?’ he persists. ‘How would she know the man would like it?’

He bites back the obvious answer: perhaps she talked to her sister, who was in your bed first. Because now the king has wandered away from Whitehall and back to the country, to the blunt-fingered cottar and his wife in apron and cap: the man who crosses himself and asks leave of the Pope before he pinches out the light and sombrely tups his spouse, her knees to the roof beams and his backside bobbing. Afterwards, this godly couple, they kneel by their bed: they join in prayer.

But one day when the cottar is about his employment, the woodsman’s little apprentice sneaks in and takes out his tool: now Joan, he says, now Jenny, bend over the table and let me teach you a lesson your mother never taught you. And so she trembles; and so he teaches her; and when the honest cottar comes home and mounts her that night, she thinks with every thrust and grunt of a newer way of doing things, a sweeter way, a dirtier way, a way that makes her eyes widen with surprise and another man’s name jerk out of her mouth. Sweet Robin, she says. Sweet Adam. And when her husband recalls that his own name is Henry, does that not cause him to scratch his pate?

It is dusk now, outside the king’s windows; his kingdom is growing chilly, his councillor too. They need lights and a fire. He opens the door and at once the room is full of folk: around the king’s person, the grooms dart and swerve like early swallows in the twilight. Henry barely notices their presence. He says, ‘Cromwell, do you suppose the rumours did not come to me? When every ale wife knew them? I am a simple man, you see. Anne told me she was untouched and I chose to believe her. She lied to me for seven years that she was a maid pure and chaste. If she could carry on such a deceit, what else might she be capable of? You can arrest her tomorrow. And her brother. Some of these acts alleged against her are not fit for discussion among decent people, lest they are moved by examples to sins they would not otherwise have dreamed to exist. I ask you and all my councillors to be close and discreet.’

‘It is easy,’ he says, ‘to be deceived about a woman’s history.’

For suppose Joan, suppose Jenny, had another life before her cottage life? You thought she grew up in a clearing at the other side of the wood. Now you hear, from reliable sources, that she came to womanhood in a harbour town, and danced naked on a table for sailors.

Did Anne, he will wonder later, understand what was coming? You would have thought that at Greenwich she would have been praying, or writing letters to her friends. Instead, if reports are true, she has walked blindly through her last morning, doing what she always used to do: she has been to the tennis courts, where she placed bets on the outcome of the matches. Late morning, a messenger came to ask her to appear before the king’s council, sitting in His Majesty’s absence: in the absence, too, of Master Secretary, who is busy elsewhere. The councillors told her that she would be charged with adultery with Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton: and with one other gentleman, for the moment unnamed. She must go to the Tower, pending proceedings against her. Her manner, Fitzwilliam tells him later, was incredulous and haughty. You cannot put a queen on trial, she said. Who is competent to try her? But then, when she was told that Mark and Henry Norris had confessed, she burst into tears.

From the council chamber, she is escorted to her own rooms, to dine. At two o’clock, he is heading there, with Audley the Lord Chancellor, and Fitzwilliam by his side. Mr Treasurer’s affable face is creased with strain. ‘I was not happy this morning in council, to hear her told so bluntly that Harry Norris has confessed. He confessed to me he loved her. He didn’t confess to any act.’

‘So what did you do, Fitz?’ he asks him. ‘Did you speak up?’

‘No,’ Audley says. ‘He fidgeted and stared into the middle distance. Didn’t you, Master Treasurer?’

‘Cromwell!’ It is Norfolk who is roaring, swatting his way through the throng of courtiers towards him. ‘Now, Cromwell! I hear the singer has sung to your tune. What did you do to him? I wish I had been there. This will furnish a pretty ballad from the printer’s shop. Henry fingering the lute, while the lutenist fingers his wife’s quim.’

‘If you hear of any such printer,’ he says, ‘tell me and I will close him down.’

Norfolk says, ‘But listen to me, Cromwell. I do not intend this bag of bones to be the ruin of my noble house. If she has misconducted herself, it must not bear on the Howards, only the Boleyns. And I don’t need Wiltshire finished off. I just want his foolish title taken off him. Monseigneur, if you please.’ The duke bares his teeth in glee. ‘I want to see him diminished, after his pride these past years. You will recall that I never promoted this marriage. No, Cromwell, that was you. I always warned Henry Tudor of her character. Perhaps this will teach him that in the future he should listen to me.’

‘My lord,’ he says, ‘do you have the warrant?’

Norfolk flourishes a parchment. When they enter Anne’s rooms, her gentlemen servants are just rolling away the great tablecloth, and she is still seated under her canopy of estate. She is wearing crimson velvet and she turns – the bag of bones – the perfect ivory oval of her face. Hard to think she has eaten anything; there is a fretful silence in the room, strain visible on every face. They must wait, the councillors, until the rolling is performed, till the folding of the napery is accomplished, and the correct reverences made.

‘So you are here, uncle,’ she says. Her voice is small. One by one she acknowledges them. ‘Lord Chancellor. Master Treasurer.’ Other councillors are pushing in behind them. Many people, it seems, have dreamed of this moment; they have dreamed that Anne would plead with them on her knees. ‘My lord Oxford,’ she says. ‘And William Sandys. How are you, Sir William?’ It is as if she finds it soothing, to name them all. ‘And you, Cremuel.’ She leans forward. ‘You know, I created you.’

‘And he created you, madam,’ Norfolk snaps. ‘And be sure he repents him of it.’

‘But I was sorry first,’ Anne says. She laughs. ‘And I am sorry more.’

‘Ready to go?’ Norfolk says.

‘I do not know how to be ready,’ she says simply.

‘Just come with us,’ he says: he, Cromwell. He holds out a hand.

‘I would rather not go to the Tower.’ The same small voice, empty of everything except politeness. ‘I would rather go to see the king. Can I not be taken up to Whitehall?’

She knows the answer. Henry never says goodbye. Once, on a summer’s day of still heat, he rode away from Windsor and left Katherine behind; he never saw her again.

She says, ‘Surely, masters, you will not take me like this, as I stand? I have no necessities, not a change of shift, and I should have my women with me.’

‘Your clothes will be brought to you,’ he says. ‘And women to serve you.’

‘I had rather have my own ladies of my privy chamber.’

Glances are exchanged. She seems not to know it is these women who have given evidence against her, these women who crowd around Master Secretary everywhere he moves, keen to tell him anything he wants, desperate to protect themselves. ‘Well, if I cannot have my choice…some persons at least from my household. So I can keep my proper state.’

Fitz clears his throat. ‘Madam, your household is to be dissolved.’

She flinches. ‘Cremuel will find them places,’ she says lightly. ‘He is good about servants.’

Norfolk nudges the Lord Chancellor. ‘Because he grew up with them, eh?’ Audley turns his face away: he is always Cromwell’s man.

‘I do not think I shall come with any of you,’ she says. ‘I will go with William Paulet, if he is pleased to escort me, because in the council this morning you all abused me, but Paulet was a very gentleman.’

‘By God,’ Norfolk chuckles. ‘Go with Paulet, is it? I’ll lock you under my arm and drag you to the boat with your arse in the air. Is that what you want?’

With one accord, the councillors turn on him, and glare. ‘Madam,’ Audley says, ‘be assured, you will be handled as befits your status.’

She stands. Gathers her crimson skirts, raising them, fastidious, as if she will not now touch the common ground. ‘Where is my lord brother?’

Last seen at Whitehall, she is told: which is true, though by now the guards may have come for him. ‘And my father Monseigneur? This is what I do not understand,’ she says. ‘Why is Monseigneur not here with me? Why does he not sit down with you gentlemen and resolve this?’

‘No doubt there will be resolution hereafter.’ The Lord Chancellor is almost purring. ‘Everything will be provided to keep you in comfort. It is arranged.’

‘But arranged for how long?’

No one answers her. Outside the chamber, William Kingston waits for her, the Constable of the Tower. Kingston is a huge man, the king’s own build; he conducts himself nobly, but his office, and his appearance, have struck terror into the hearts of the strongest men. He remembers Wolsey, when Kingston went up-country to arrest him: the cardinal’s legs went from under him, and he had to sit down on a chest to recover. We should have left Kingston at home, he whispers to Audley, and taken her ourselves. Audley murmurs, ‘We could have, certainly; but don’t you think, Master Secretary, that you’re frightening enough on your own account?’

It amazes him, the Lord Chancellor’s levity, as they pass into the open air. At the king’s landing stage, the heads of stone beasts swim in the water, and so do their own shapes, the shapes of gentlemen, their forms broken by ripples, and the everted queen, flickering like a flame in a glass: around them, the dance of mild afternoon sunshine, and a flood of birdsong. He hands Anne into the barge, as Audley seems reluctant to touch her, and she shies away from Norfolk; and as if fishing his thoughts out of his mind, she whispers, ‘Cremuel, you have never forgiven me for Wolsey.’ Fitzwilliam gives him a glance, murmurs something he does not catch. Fitz was a favourite of the cardinal’s in his day, and perhaps they are sharing a thought: now Anne Boleyn knows what it is like to be turned out of your house and put upon the river, your whole life receding with every stroke of the oars.

Norfolk takes a place opposite his niece, twitching and tutting. ‘You see? You see now, madam! You see what happens, when you spurn your own family?’

‘I do not think “spurn” is the word,’ Audley says. ‘She hardly did that.’

He gives Audley a black look. He has asked for discretion on the charges against brother George. He does not want Anne to start flailing about and knock someone out of the boat. He withdraws into himself. Watches the water. A company of halberdiers are their escort, and he admires each fine axe edge, the sharp gleam on their blades. From an armoury’s point of view, they are surprisingly cheap to produce, halberds. But probably, as a weapon of war, they’ve had their day. He thinks of Italy, the battlefield, the forward push of pike. There is a powder house at the Tower and he likes to go in and talk to the firemasters. But perhaps that is a task for another day.

Anne says, ‘Where is Charles Brandon? I am sure he is sorry not to have seen this.’

‘He is with the king, I suppose,’ Audley says. He turns to him and whispers, ‘Poisoning his mind against your friend Wyatt. You have your work cut out there, Master Secretary.’

His eyes are on the far bank. ‘Wyatt is too good a man to lose.’

The Lord Chancellor sniffs. ‘Verses will not save him. Damn him, rather. We know he writes in riddles. But I think perhaps the king will feel they have been solved.’

He thinks not. There are codes so subtle that they change their whole meaning in half a line, or in a syllable, or in a pause, a caesura. He has prided himself, will pride himself, on asking Wyatt no questions that will force him to lie, though he may dissimulate. Anne should have dissimulated, Lady Rochford has explained to him: on her first night with the king she should have acted the virgin’s part, lain rigid and weeping. ‘But, Lady Rochford,’ he had objected, ‘faced with such fear, any man might falter. The king is not a rapist.’

Oh, well then, Lady Rochford had said. She should at least have flattered him. She should have acted like a woman who was getting a happy surprise.

He did not relish the topic; he sensed in Jane Rochford’s tone the peculiar cruelty of women. They fight with the poor weapons God has bestowed – spite, guile, skill in deceit – and it is likely that in conversations between themselves they trespass in places where a man would never trust his footing. The king’s body is borderless, fluent, like his realm: it is an island building itself or eroding itself, its substance washed out into the waters salt and fresh; it has its shores of polder, its marshy tracts, its reclaimed margins; it has tidal waters, emissions and effusions, quags that slough in and out of the conversation of Englishwomen, and dark mires where only priests should wade, rush lights in their hands.

On the river the breeze is cold; summer still weeks away. Anne is watching the water. She looks up and says, ‘Where is the archbishop? Cranmer will defend me and so will all my bishops, they owe their promotion to me. Fetch Cranmer and he will swear I am a good woman.’

Norfolk leans forward and speaks into her face: ‘A bishop would spit on you, niece.’

‘I am the queen and if you do me harm, then a curse will come on you. No rain will fall till I am released.’

A soft groan from Fitzwilliam. The Lord Chancellor says, ‘Madam, it is such foolish talk of curses and spells that has brought you here.’

‘Oh? I thought you said I was a false wife, are you now saying I am a sorcerer too?’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘It was none of us raised the subject of curses.’

‘You cannot do anything against me. I will swear on oath I am true, and the king will listen. You can bring no witnesses. You do not even know how to charge me.’

‘Charge you?’ Norfolk says. ‘Why charge you, I ask myself. It would save us trouble if we pitched you out and drowned you.’

Anne shrinks into herself. Huddled as far as she can get from her uncle, she looks the size of a child.

As the barge moors at the Court Gate he sees Kingston’s deputy, Edmund Walsingham, scanning the river; in conversation with him, Richard Riche. ‘Purse, what are you doing here?’

‘I thought you might want me, sir.’

The queen steps on to dry land, steadies herself on Kingston’s arm. Walsingham bows to her. He seems agitated; he looks around, wondering to which councillor he should address himself. ‘Are we to fire the cannon?’

‘That’s usual,’ Norfolk says, ‘is it not? When a person of note comes in, at the king’s pleasure. And she is of note, I suppose?’

‘Yes, but a queen…’ the man says.

‘Fire the cannon,’ Norfolk demands. ‘The Londoners ought to know.’

‘I think they know already,’ he says. ‘Didn’t my lord see them running along the banks?’

Anne looks up, scans the stonework above her head, the narrow loupe windows and the gratings. There are no human faces, just the flap of a raven’s wing, and its voice above her, startling in its human quality. ‘Is Harry Norris here?’ she asks. ‘Has he not cleared my name?’

‘I fear not,’ Kingston says. ‘Nor his own.’

Something happens to Anne then, which later he will not quite understand. She seems to dissolve and slip from their grasp, from Kingston’s hands and his, she seems to liquefy and elude them, and when she resolves herself once more into woman’s form she is on hands and knees on the cobbles, her head thrown back, wailing.

Fitzwilliam, the Lord Chancellor, even her uncle, step back; Kingston frowns, his deputy shakes his head, Richard Riche looks stricken. He, Cromwell, takes hold of her – since no one else will do it – and sets her back on her feet. She weighs nothing, and as he lifts her, her wail breaks off, as if her breath had been stopped. Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her.

As they turn back to the royal barge, Norfolk barks, ‘Master Secretary? I need to see the king.’

‘Alas,’ he says, as if the regret were genuine: alas, that will not be possible. ‘His Majesty has asked for peace and seclusion. Surely, my lord, in the circumstances you would do the same.’

‘In the circumstances?’ Norfolk echoes. The duke is dumb, at least for a minute, as they inch out into the central channel of the Thames: and he frowns, no doubt thinking of his own ill-used wife and the chances of her straying. A snort of derision is best, the duke decides: ‘I tell you what, Master Secretary, I know you’re friendly with my duchess, so what do you say? Cranmer can have us annulled, and she’s yours for the asking. What, you won’t have her? She comes with her own bedding and a riding mule, and she doesn’t eat much. I’ll make over forty shillings a year and we’ll shake hands on it.’

‘My lord, curb yourself,’ Audley says fiercely. He is driven to the reproach of last resort: ‘Remember your ancestry.’

‘It’s more than Cromwell can,’ the duke sniggers. ‘Now listen to me, Crumb. If I say I need to see the Tudor, no blacksmith’s boy will say me nay.’

‘He may weld you, my lord,’ Richard Riche says. They had not noticed him slip aboard. ‘He may take upon him to beat and reshape your head. Master Secretary has skills you have never imagined.’

A sort of giddiness has seized them, a reaction to the horrible sight they have left behind on the quay. ‘He may pound you into a different shape entirely,’ Audley says. ‘You may wake up a duke and by noon you may be curved into a horseboy.’

‘He may melt you,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘You begin as a duke and end as a leaden drip.’

‘You may live out your days as a trivet,’ Riche says. ‘Or a hinge.’

He thinks, you must laugh, Thomas Howard, you must laugh or burst into flames: which will it be? If you combust we can at least throw water on you. With a spasm, a shudder, the duke turns his back on them to master himself: ‘Tell Henry,’ he says. ‘Tell him I renounce the wench. Tell him I no longer call her niece.’

He, Cromwell, says, ‘You will have the chance to show loyalty. If it comes to a trial, you will preside over the court.’

‘At least, we think that is the procedure,’ Riche chips in. ‘A queen has never come to trial before. What does the Lord Chancellor say?’

‘I say nothing.’ Audley holds up his palms. ‘You and Wriothesley and Master Secretary have worked it all between you, as you usually do. Only – Cromwell, you will not put the Earl of Wiltshire among the judges?’

He smiles. ‘Her father? No. I would not do that.’

‘How will we charge Lord Rochford?’ Fitzwilliam asks. ‘If he is indeed to be charged?’

Norfolk says, ‘It is the three for trial? Norris, Rochford, and the fiddle player?’

‘Oh no, my lord,’ he says calmly.

‘There’s more? By the Mass!’

‘How many lovers has she had?’ Audley says, with a keenness barely suppressed.

Riche says, ‘Lord Chancellor, you have seen the king? I have seen him. He is pale and ill from the strain. That, in fact, is treason in itself, if any harm should happen to his royal body. Indeed, I think we may say harm has already occurred.’

If dogs could smell out treason, Riche would be a bloodhound, that prince among trufflers.

He says, ‘I keep an open mind as to how these gentlemen are to be charged, whether with concealing a treason or with the offence itself. If they claim to be only a witness to the misdeeds of others they must say who those others are, they must earnestly and openly tell us what they know; but if they withhold names, we must suspect they are themselves among the guilty.’

The boom of the cannon catches them unawares, shuddering across the water; you feel the jolt inside, in your bones.

That evening a message comes to him from Kingston at the Tower. Write down everything she says and everything she does, he had told the constable, and Kingston – a dutiful, civil and prudent man, though sometimes obtuse – can be relied on for that. As the councillors walked away to the barge, Anne asked him, ‘Master Kingston, shall I go into a dungeon?’ No, madam, he had assured her, you shall have the chambers where you lay before your coronation.

At that, he reports, she fell into a storm of weeping, ‘It is too good for me. Jesus have mercy on me.’ Then she knelt down on the stones and prayed and wept, said the constable: then, most strangely, or so it seemed to him, she began to laugh.

Without a word, he passes the letter to Wriothesley. Who looks up from it, and when he speaks his tone is hushed. ‘What has she done, Master Secretary? Perhaps something we have not yet imagined.’

He looks at him, exasperated. ‘You are not going to begin on that witchcraft business?’

‘No. But. If she says she is not worthy, she is saying she is guilty. Or so it seems to me. But I do not know guilty of what.’

‘Remind me what I said. What kind of truth do we want? Did I say, the whole truth?’

‘You said, only the truth we can use.’

‘I reiterate the point. But you know, Call-Me, I shouldn’t have to. You’re quick on the uptake. Once should be enough.’

It is a warm evening, and he sits by an open window, his nephew Richard for company. Richard knows when to keep silence and when to talk; it is a family trait, he supposes. Rafe Sadler is the only other company he would have liked, and Rafe is with the king.

Richard looks up. ‘I had a letter from Gregory.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘You know Gregory’s letters.’

‘“The sun is shining. We have had good hunting and great cheer. I am well, how are you? And now no more for lack of time.”’

Richard nods. ‘He doesn’t change, Gregory. Though he does, I suppose. He wants to come here to you. He should be with you, he thinks.’

‘I was trying to spare him.’

‘I know. But perhaps you should let him. You cannot keep him a child.’

He broods. If his son is to become accustomed to the king’s service, perhaps he should know what it involves. ‘You can leave me,’ he says to Richard. ‘I might write to him.’

Richard pauses to shut out the night air. Outside the door his voice runs on, giving kindly commands: bring down my uncle’s furred gown, he may want it, and take in to him more lights. He is sometimes surprised if he knows someone cares for him, cares enough to think of his bodily comfort: except for his servants, who are paid to do it. He wonders how the queen finds herself, amid her new Tower household: Lady Kingston has been set among her attendants, and though he has placed women of the Boleyn family around her, they might not be those she would have chosen for herself. They are women of experience, who will know how the tide is running. They will listen keenly to weeping and laughter, and any words like, ‘It is too good for me.’

He believes he understands Anne, as Wriothesley does not. When she said the queen’s lodgings were too good for her, she did not mean to admit her guilt, but to say this truth: I am not worthy, and I am not worthy because I have failed. One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. She has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now ordered to live in the queen’s rooms. She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these.

Richard puts his head back in and says, ‘Your letter, shall I write it for you? Save your eyes?’

He says, ‘Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.’

* * *

He has asked the king to keep to his privy chamber, admit as few people as possible. He has strictly instructed the guards to turn away petitioners, whether men or women. He does not want the king’s judgement contaminated, as it can be, by the last person he talked to; he does not want Henry persuaded or cajoled or pushed off course. Henry seems inclined to obey him. These last years, the king has tended to retire from public view: at first because he wanted to be with his concubine Anne, and then because he wanted to be without her. Behind his privy chamber, he has his secret lodgings; and sometimes, after he has been put into his great bed and the bed has been blessed, after the candles have been snuffed, he pushes away the damask counterpane and slides from the mattress and pads into a secret chamber, where he creeps into another, unofficial bed, and sleeps like a natural man, naked and alone.

So it is in the muffled silence of these secret rooms, hung with tapestries of the Fall of Man, that the king says to him, ‘Cranmer has sent a letter from Lambeth. Read it to me, Cromwell. I have had it read once, but do you read it again.’

He takes the paper. You can feel Cranmer shrinking as he writes, hoping the ink will run and the words blur. Anne the queen has favoured him, Anne has listened to him and promoted the cause of the gospel; Anne has made use of him, too, but Cranmer can never see that. ‘“I am in such perplexity,” he writes, “that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman, than I had in her.”’

Henry interrupts him. ‘See how we were all deceived.’

‘“…which maketh me to think,”’ he reads, ‘“that she should not be culpable. And again, I think your Highness would not have gone so far, except she had surely been culpable.”’

‘Wait till he hears it all,’ Henry says. ‘He will not have heard the like. At least, I hope he has not. I do not think there has ever been an instance in the world like this.’

‘“Now I think that your Grace best knoweth, that next unto your Grace I was most bound unto her of all creatures living…”’

Henry breaks in again. ‘But you will see he goes on to say, if she is culpable she should be punished without mercy, and held for an example. Seeing how I raised her from nothing. And further he says, that no one who loves the gospel will favour her, rather hate her.’

Cranmer adds, ‘Wherefore I trust that your Grace will bear no less entire favour unto the truth of the gospel, than you did before forsomuch as your grace’s favour to the gospel was not led by affection unto her, but by zeal unto the truth.

He, Cromwell, puts the letter down. That seems to cover everything. She cannot be guilty. But yet she must be guilty. We, her brethren, repudiate her.

He says, ‘Sir, if you want Cranmer, send for him. You could comfort each other, and perhaps between you try to understand all this. I will tell your people to let him in. You look as if you need fresh air. Go down the stair into the privy garden. You will not be disturbed.’

‘But I have not seen Jane,’ Henry says. ‘I want to look at her. We can bring her here?’

‘Not yet, sir. Wait till the business is more forward. There are rumours on the streets, and crowds who want to see her, and ballads made, deriding her.’

‘Ballads?’ Henry is shocked. ‘Find out the authors. They must be straitly punished. No, you are right, we must not bring Jane here until the air is pure. So you go to her, Cromwell. I want you to carry a certain token.’ He produces from among his papers a tiny, jewelled book: the kind a woman keeps at her girdle, looped on a gold chain. ‘It was my wife’s,’ he says. Then he checks himself and looks away in shame. ‘I mean to say, it was Katherine’s.’

He does not want to take the time to go down to Surrey to Carew’s house, but it seems he must. It is a well-proportioned house put up some thirty years ago, its great hall especially splendid and much copied by gentlemen building their own houses. He has been there before, with the cardinal in his time. It looks as though since then Carew has brought Italians in to replan the gardens. The gardeners doff their straw hats to him. The walks are coming into their early summer glory. Birds twitter from an aviary. The grass is shorn as close as velvet pile. Nymphs watch him with stone eyes.

Now that the business is tending one way and one way only, the Seymours have begun teaching Jane how to be a queen. ‘This business you get up to with doors,’ Edward Seymour says. Jane blinks at him. ‘The way you hold the door still and slide yourself around it.’

‘You told me to be discreet.’ Jane lowers her eyes, to show him what discretion means.

‘Now. Go out of the room,’ Edward says. ‘Come back in. Like a queen, Jane.’

Jane sneaks out. The door creaks behind her. In the hiatus, they look at each other. The door swings open. There is a long pause – as it might be, a regal pause. The doorway stands empty. Then Jane appears, inching around the corner. ‘Is that better?’

‘Do you know what I think?’ he says. ‘I think that from now on Jane won’t be opening her own doors, so it doesn’t matter.’

‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’

‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?’

In the gallery the whole family is assembled. The two brothers, prudent Edward and hasty Tom. Worthy Sir John, the old goat. Lady Margery, the noted beauty of her day, about whom John Skelton once penned a line: ‘benign, courteous and meek’, he called her. The meekness is not evident today: she looks grimly triumphant, like a woman who has squeezed success from life, though it’s taken her nearly sixty years to do it.

Bess Seymour, the widowed sister, sails in. She has a parcel wrapped in linen in her hands. ‘Master Secretary,’ she says, with a reverence. She says to her brother, ‘Here, Tom, hold this. Sit down, sister.’

Jane sits on a stool. You expect someone to hand her a slate and begin her on A.B.C. ‘Now,’ Bess says. ‘Off with this.’ For a moment, she looks as if she is attacking her sister: with a vigorous double-handed tug, she rips off her half-moon headdress, flips up its veil and bundles the whole into the waiting hands of her mother.

Jane in her white cap looks naked and pained, her face as small and wan as a face on a sickbed. ‘Cap off too, and start again,’ Bess orders. She drags at the knotted string under her sister’s chin. ‘What have you done with this, Jane? It looks as if you’ve been sucking it.’ Lady Margery produces a pair of embroidery scissors. With a snip, Jane is freed. Her sister whisks the cap off and Jane’s pale hair, a thin ribbon of light, streaks over her shoulder. Sir John ahems and looks away, the old hypocrite: as if he’d seen something beyond the male remit. The hair has a moment’s freedom before Lady Margery plucks it up and wraps it around her hand, as unfeeling as if it were a hank of wool; Jane frowns as it is whipped up from her nape, coiled, and crammed under a newer, stiffer cap. ‘We’re going to pin this,’ Bess says. She works, absorbed. ‘More elegant, if you can stand it.’

‘Never liked strings myself,’ Lady Margery says.

‘Thank you, Tom,’ Bess says, and takes her parcel. She casts aside the wrappings. ‘Cap tighter,’ she decrees. Her mother pinches as directed, repins. The next moment a fabric box is crammed on Jane’s head. Her eyes turn up, as if for help, and she utters one little bleat, as the wire frame bites into her scalp. ‘Well, I am surprised,’ Lady Margery says. ‘You’ve got a bigger head than I thought, Jane.’ Bess applies herself to bending the wire. Jane sits mute. ‘That’ll do,’ Lady Margery says. ‘It’s got a bit of give in it. Push it down. Turn up the lappets. About chin level, Bess. That’s how the old queen used to like it.’ She stands back to assess her daughter, now imprisoned in an old-fashioned gable hood, the kind that hasn’t been seen since Anne came up. Lady Margery sucks in her lips and studies her daughter. ‘Tilting,’ she pronounces.

‘That’s Jane, I think,’ Tom Seymour says. ‘Sit up straight, sister.’

Jane puts her hands to her head, gingerly, as if the construction might be hot. ‘Leave it alone,’ her mother snaps. ‘You wore it before. You’ll get used to it.’

From somewhere Bess produces a length of fine black veiling. ‘Sit still.’ She begins to pin it to the back of the box, her face absorbed. Ouch, that was my neck, Jane says, and Tom Seymour gives a heartless laugh; some private joke of his, too unseemly to share, but one can guess. ‘I’m sorry to keep you, Master Secretary,’ Bess says, ‘but she has to get this right. We cannot have her reminding the king of, you know.’

Just take care, he thinks, uneasy: it is only four months since Katherine died, perhaps the king does not want to be reminded of her either.

‘We have several more frames at our command,’ Bess tells her sister, ‘so if you really can’t balance it, we can take the whole thing down and try again.’

Jane closed her eyes. ‘I’m sure it will do.’

‘How did you get them so quickly?’ he asks.

‘They have been put away,’ Lady Margery says. ‘In chests. By women like myself who knew they would be needed again. We shall not see the French fashions now, not for many a year, please God.’

Old Sir John says, ‘The king has sent her jewels.’

‘Things La Ana had no use for,’ Tom Seymour says. ‘But they will all come to her soon.’

Bess says, ‘I suppose Anne will not want them, in her convent.’

Jane glances up: and now she does it, now she meets the eyes of her brothers, and pulls her gaze away again. It is always a surprise to hear her voice, so soft and so unpractised, its tone so at odds with what she has to say. ‘I do not see how that can work, the convent. First Anne would claim that she was carrying the king’s child. Then he would be forced to wait on her, without result, for there is never a result. After that she would think of new delays. And meanwhile none of us would be safe.’

Tom says, ‘She knows Henry’s secrets, I dare say. And would sell them to her friends the French.’

‘Not that they are her friends,’ Edward says. ‘Not any more.’

‘But she would try,’ Jane says.

He sees them, closing ranks: a fine old English family. He asks Jane, ‘Would you do anything you can, to ruin Anne Boleyn?’ His tone implies no reproach; he’s just interested.

Jane considers: but only for a moment. ‘No one need contrive at her ruin. No one is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.’

He must study Jane, now, the expression on her downturned face. When Henry courted Anne she looked squarely at the world, her chin tilted upwards, her shallow-set eyes like pools of darkness against the glow of her skin. But one searching glance is enough for Jane, and then she casts her eyes down. Her expression is withdrawn, brooding. He has seen it before. He has been looking at pictures these forty years. When he was a boy, before he ran away from England, a picture was a splayed cunt chalked on a wall, or a flat-eyed saint you studied while you yawned through Sunday Mass. But in Florence the masters had painted silver-faced virgins, demure, reluctant, whose fate moved within them, a slow reckoning in the blood; their eyes were turned inwards, to images of pain and glory. Has Jane seen such pictures? Is it possible that the masters drew from life, that they studied the face of some woman betrothed, some woman being walked by her kin to the church door? French hood, gable hood, it is not enough. If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.

‘Well now,’ he says. He feels awkward, attracting attention back to himself. ‘The reason I have come, the king has sent me with a gift.’

It is wrapped in silk. Jane looks up as she turns it over in her hands. ‘You once gave me a gift, Master Cromwell. And in those days no one else did so. You may be sure I shall remember that, when it is in my power to do you good.’

Just in time to frown at this, Sir Nicholas Carew has made an entrance. He does not come into a room like lesser men, but rolls in, like a siege engine or some formidable hurling device: and now, halting before Cromwell, he looks as if he wishes to bombard him. ‘I have heard about these ballads,’ he says. ‘Cannot you suppress them?’

‘They’re nothing personal,’ he says. ‘Just warmed-over libels from when Katherine was queen and Anne was the pretender.’

‘The two cases are in no way alike. This virtuous lady, and that…’ Words fail Carew; and indeed, her judicial status uncertain, the charges not yet framed, it is hard to describe Anne. If she is a traitor she is, pending the verdict of the court, technically dead; though at the Tower, Kingston reports, she eats heartily enough, and giggles, like Tom Seymour, over private jokes.

‘The king is rewriting old songs,’ he says. ‘Reworking their references. A dark lady is taken out and a fair lady brought in. Jane knows how these things are managed. She was with the old queen. If Jane has no illusions, a little maid such as she, then you should get rid of yours, Sir Nicholas. You are too old for them.’

Jane sits unmoving with her present in her hands, still wrapped. ‘It’s all right to undo it, Jane,’ her sister says kindly. ‘Whatever it is, it’s yours to keep.’

‘I was listening to Master Secretary,’ Jane says. ‘One can learn a great deal from him.’

‘Hardly apt lessons for you,’ Edward Seymour says.

‘I don’t know. Ten years in the train of Master Secretary, and I might learn to stand up for myself.’

‘Your happy destiny,’ says Edward, ‘is to be a queen, not a clerk.’

‘So do you,’ Jane says, ‘give thanks to God I was born a woman?’

‘We thank God on our knees daily,’ Tom Seymour says, with leaden gallantry. It is new to him, to have this meek sister require compliments, and he is not swift to respond. He gives brother Edward a glance and a shrug: sorry, best I can do.

Jane unwraps her prize. She runs the chain through her fingers; it is as fine as one of her own hairs. She holds the tiny book in the palm of her hand and turns it over. In the gold and black enamel of its cover, initials are studded in rubies, and entwined: ‘H’ and ‘A’.

‘Think nothing of it, the stones can be replaced,’ he says quickly. Jane hands him the object. Her face has fallen; she does not yet know how thrifty the king can be, this most magnificent prince. Henry should have warned me, he thinks. Beneath Anne’s initial you can still distinguish the ‘K’. He passes it to Nicholas Carew. ‘You take note?’

The knight opens it, fumbling with the tiny clasp. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘A Latin prayer. Or a Bible verse?’

‘If I may?’ He takes it back. ‘Here is the Book of Proverbs. “Who can find a good, a virtuous woman? Her price is beyond rubies.”’ Evidently it’s not, he thinks: three presents, three wives, and only one jeweller’s bill. He says to Jane, smiling, ‘Do you know this woman who is mentioned here? Her clothing is silk and purple, says the author. I could tell you much more about her, from verses this page cannot contain.’

Edward Seymour says, ‘You should have been a bishop, Cromwell.’

‘Edward,’ he says, ‘I should have been Pope.’

He is taking his leave, when Carew crooks a peremptory finger. Oh, Lord Jesus, he breathes to himself, I am in trouble now, for not being humble enough. Carew motions him aside. But it is not to reproach him. ‘The Princess Mary,’ Carew murmurs, ‘is very hopeful of a call to her father’s side. What better remedy and comfort at such a time, for the king, than to have the child of his true marriage in his house?’

‘Mary is better where she is. The subjects discussed here, in the council and on the street, are not fit for the ears of a young girl.’

Carew frowns. ‘There may be something in that. But she looks to have messages from the king. Tokens.’

Tokens, he thinks; that can be arranged.

‘There are ladies and gentlemen from the court,’ Carew says, ‘who wish to ride up-country to pay their respects, and if the princess is not to be conducted here, surely the terms of her confinement should be relaxed? It is hardly suitable, now, to have Boleyn women around her. Perhaps her old governor, the Countess of Salisbury…’

Margaret Pole? That haggard papist battleaxe? But now is not the time to deliver hard truths to Sir Nicholas; that can wait. ‘The king will dispose,’ he says comfortably. ‘It is a close family matter. He will know what is best for his daughter.’

By night, when the candles are lit, Henry leaks easy tears over Mary. But by daylight he sees her for what she is: disobedient, self-willed, still unbroken. When all this is tidied away, the king says, I shall turn my attention to my duties as father. I am sad that the Lady Mary and I have become estranged. After Anne, reconciliation will become possible. But, he adds, there will be certain conditions. To which, mark my words, my daughter Mary will adhere.

‘One more thing,’ Carew says. ‘You must pull Wyatt in.’

Instead, he has Francis Bryan fetched. Francis comes in grinning: he thinks himself the untouchable man. His eye patch is decorated with a small winking emerald, which gives a sinister effect: one green eye, and the other…

He examines it: says, ‘Sir Francis, what colour are your eyes? I mean, your eye?’

‘Red, generally,’ Bryan says. ‘But I try not to drink during Lent. Or Advent. Or on Fridays.’ He sounds lugubrious. ‘Why am I here? You know I’m on your side, don’t you?’

‘I only asked you to supper.’

‘You asked Mark Smeaton to supper. And look where he is now.’

‘It is not I who doubts you,’ he says with a heavy, actor’s sigh. (How he enjoys Sir Francis.) ‘It is not I, but the world at large, who asks where your loyalties lie. You are, of course, the queen’s kinsman.’

‘I am Jane’s kinsman too.’ Bryan is still at ease, and he shows it by leaning back in his chair, his feet thrust out under the table. ‘I hardly thought I should be interrogated.’

‘I am talking to everyone who is close to the queen’s family. And you are certainly close, you have been with them since the early days; did you not go to Rome, chasing the king’s divorce, pressing the Boleyns’ case with the best of them? But what should you fear? You are an old courtier, you know everything. Used wisely, wisely shared, knowledge may protect you.’

He waits. Bryan has sat up straight.

‘And you want to please the king,’ he says. ‘All I ask is to be sure that, if you are put to it, you will give evidence on any point I require.’

He could swear that Francis sweats Gascon wine, his pores leaking that mouldy, ropey stuff he’s been buying cheap and selling dear to the king’s own cellars.

‘Look, Crumb,’ Bryan says. ‘What I know is, Norris always imagined rutting with her.’

‘And her brother, what did he imagine?’

Bryan shrugs. ‘She was sent to France and they never knew each other till they were grown. I have known such things happen, have not you?’

‘No, I cannot say I have. We never went in for incest where I grew up, God knows we had crimes enough and sins, but there were places our fantasy did not stretch.’

‘You saw it in Italy, I wager. Only sometimes people see it and they don’t dare name it.’

‘I dare name anything,’ he says calmly. ‘As you will see. My imagination may lag behind each day’s revelations, but I am working hard to catch up with them.’

‘Now she is not queen,’ Bryan says, ‘because she is not, is she…I can call her what she is, a hot minx, and where has she better opportunity, than with her family?’

He says, ‘By that reasoning, do you think she goes to it with Uncle Norfolk? It could even be you, Sir Francis. If she has a mind to her relatives. You are a great gallant.’

‘Oh, Christ,’ Bryan says. ‘Cromwell, you would not.’

‘I only mention it. But as we are at one in this matter, or we appear to be, will you do me a service? You could ride over to Great Hallingbury, and prepare my friend Lord Morley for what is coming. It is not the sort of news you can break in a letter, not when the friend is elderly.’

‘You think it’s better face to face?’ An incredulous laugh. ‘My lord, I shall say, I come myself to spare you a shock – your daughter Jane will soon be a widow, because her husband is to be decapitated for incest.’

‘No, the matter of incest we leave to the priests. It is for treason he will die. And we do not know the king will choose decapitation.’

‘I do not believe I can do it.’

‘But I do. I have great faith in you. Think of it as a diplomatic mission. You have performed those. Though I wonder how.’

‘Sober,’ Francis Bryan says. ‘I shall need a drink for this one. And you know, I have a dread of Lord Morley. He is always pulling out some ancient manuscript, and saying, “Look here, Francis!” and laughing heartily at the jokes in it. And you know my Latin, any schoolboy would be ashamed of it.’

‘Don’t wheedle,’ he says. ‘Saddle your horse. But before you ride to Essex, do me a further service. Go see your friend Nicholas Carew. Tell him I agree to his demands and I will talk to Wyatt. But warn him, tell him not to push me because I will not be pushed. Remind Carew that there may be more arrests, I am not yet able to say who. Or rather, if I am able, I am not willing. Understand, and make your friends understand, that I must have a free hand to deal. I am not their waiting boy.’

‘Am I free to go?’

‘Free as air,’ he says, blandly. ‘But what about supper?’

‘You can eat mine,’ Francis says.

Though the king’s chamber is dark, the king says, ‘We must look into a glass of truth. I think I am to blame, as what I suspected I did not own.’

Henry looks at Cranmer as if to say, it’s your turn now: I admit my fault, so give me absolution. The archbishop looks harrowed; he does not know what Henry will say next, or if he can trust himself to respond. This is not a night for which Cambridge ever trained him. ‘You were not remiss,’ he tells the king. He darts a questioning look, like a long needle, at him, Cromwell. ‘In these matters, surely the accusation should not come before the evidence.’

‘You must bear in mind,’ he says to Cranmer – for he is bland and easy and full of phrases – ‘you must bear in mind that not I but the whole council examined the gentlemen who now stand accused. And the council called you in, laid the matter before you, and you did not demur. As you have said yourself, my lord archbishop, we would not have gone so far in the matter without grave consideration.’

‘When I look back,’ Henry says, ‘so much falls into place. I was misled and betrayed. So many friends lost, friends and good servants, lost, alienated, exiled from court. And worse…I think of Wolsey. The woman I called my wife practised against him with all her ingenuity, with every weapon of slyness and rancour.’

Which wife would that be? Both Katherine and Anne worked against the cardinal. ‘I do not know why I have been so crossed,’ Henry says. ‘But does not Augustine call marriage “a mortal and slavish garment”?’

‘Chrysostom,’ Cranmer murmurs.

‘But let that pass,’ he, Cromwell, says hastily. ‘If this marriage is dissolved, Majesty, Parliament will petition you to marry again.’

‘I dare say it will. How may a man do his duty, to both his realm and to God? We sin even in the very act of generation. We must have offspring, and kings especially must, and yet we are warned against lust even in marriage, and some authorities say, do they not, that to love your wife immoderately is a kind of adultery?’

‘Jerome,’ Cranmer whispers: as if he would just as soon disown the saint. ‘But there are many other teachings that are more comfortable, and that praise the married state.’

‘Roses snatched from the thorns,’ he says. ‘The church does not offer much comfort to the married man, though Paul says we should love our wives. It is hard, Majesty, not to think marriage is sinful inherently, since the celibates have spent many centuries saying that they are better than we are. But they are not better. Repetition of false teachings does not make them true. You agree, Cranmer?’

Just kill me now, the archbishop’s face says. Against all the laws of king and church, he is a married man; he married in Germany when he was among the reformers, he keeps Frau Grete secretly, he hides her in his country houses. Does Henry know? He must know. Will Henry say? No, because he is intent on his own plight. ‘Now I cannot see why I ever wanted her,’ the king says. ‘That is why I think she has practised on me with charms and enchantments. She claims she loves me. Katherine claimed she loved me. They say love, and mean the opposite. I believe Anne has tried to undermine me at every turn. She was always unnatural. Think how she would taunt her uncle, my lord of Norfolk. Think how she would scorn her father. She would presume to censure my own conduct, and press on me advice in matters well beyond her understanding, and give me such words as no poor man would willingly hear from his wife.’

Cranmer says, ‘She was bold, it is true. She knew it for a fault and would try to bridle herself.’

‘Now she shall be bridled, by God.’ Henry’s tone is ferocious; but the next moment he has modulated it, to the plaintive accents of the victim. He opens his walnut writing box. ‘Do you see this little book?’ It is not really a book, or not yet, just a collection of loose leaves, tied together; there is no title page, but a sheet black with Henry’s own laboured hand. ‘It is a book in the making. I have written it. It is a play. It is a tragedy. It is my own case.’ He offers it.

He says, ‘Keep it sir, till we have more leisure to do justice to it.’

‘But you ought to know,’ the king insists. ‘Her nature. How ill she has behaved to me, when I gave her everything. All men should know and be warned about what women are. Their appetites are unbounded. I believe she has committed adultery with a hundred men.’

Henry looks, for a moment, like a hunted creature: hounded by women’s desire, dragged down and shredded. ‘But her brother?’ Cranmer says. He turns away. He will not look at the king. ‘Is it likely?’

‘I doubt she could resist him,’ Henry says. ‘Why spare? Why not drink the cup to the filthy dregs? And while she was indulging her own desires, she was killing mine. When I would approach her, only to do my duty, she would give me such a look as would daunt any man. I know now why she did so. She wanted to be fresh for her lovers.’

The king sits. He begins to talk, to ramble. Anne took him by the hand, these ten years ago and more. She led him into the forest, and at the sylvan edge, where the broad light of day splinters and filters into green, he left his good judgement, his innocence. She drew him on all day, till he was trembling and exhausted, but he could not stop even to catch his breath, he could not go back, he had lost the path. All day he chased her, until the light faded, and he followed her by the light of torches: and then she turned on him, and stifled the torches, and left him alone in the dark.

The door opens softly: he looks up, and it is Rafe, where once it would have been Weston, perhaps. ‘Majesty, my lord of Richmond is here to say good night. May he come in?’

Henry breaks off. ‘Fitzroy. Of course.’

Henry’s bastard is now a princeling of sixteen, though his fine skin, his open gaze, make him seem younger than his age. He has the red-gold hair of King Edward IV’s line; he has a look of Prince Arthur too, Henry’s elder brother who died. He is hesitant as he confronts his bull of a father, hovering in case he is unwanted. But Henry rises and embraces the boy, his face wet with tears. ‘My little son,’ he says, to the child who will soon make six foot. ‘My only son.’ The king is crying so hard now that he has to blot his face on his sleeve. ‘She would have poisoned you,’ he moans. ‘Thank God that by the cunning of Master Secretary the plot was found out in time.’

‘Thank you, Master Secretary,’ the boy says formally. ‘For finding out the plot.’

‘She would have poisoned you and your sister Mary, both of you, and made that little blotch she spawned the heir to England. Or my throne would have passed to whatever she whelped next, God save me, if it lived. I doubt a child of hers could live. She was too wicked. God abandoned her. Pray for your father, pray God does not abandon me. I have sinned, I must have. The marriage was illicit.’

‘What, this one was?’ the boy says. ‘This one as well?’

‘Illicit and accursed.’ Henry rocks the boy back and forth, gripping him ferociously, fists clenched behind his back: so, perhaps, does a bear crush her cubs. ‘The marriage was outside God’s law. Nothing could make it lawful. Neither of them was my wife, not this one and not the other, thank God she is in her grave now, and I do not have to listen to her snuffling and praying and entreating and meddling in my business. Do not tell me there were dispensations, I do not want to hear it, no Pope can dispense from the law of Heaven. How did she ever come near me, Anne Boleyn? Why did I ever look at her? Why did she blind my eyes? There are so many women in the world, so many fresh and young and virtuous women, so many good and kind women. Why have I been cursed with women who destroy the children in their own wombs?’

He lets the boy go, so abruptly that he staggers.

Henry sniffs. ‘Go now, child. To your own guiltless bed. And you, Master Secretary, to your…back to your own people.’ The king blots his face with his handkerchief. ‘I am too tired to confess tonight, my lord archbishop. You may go home too. But you will come again, and absolve me.’

It seems a comfortable idea. Cranmer hesitates: but he is not one to press for secrets. As they leave the chamber, Henry takes up his little book; absorbed, he turns the pages, and settles down to read his own story.

Outside the king’s chamber he gives the signal to the hovering gentlemen. ‘Go in and see if he wants anything.’ Slow, reluctant, his body servants creep towards Henry in his lair: unsure of their welcome, unsure of everything. Pastime with good company: but where’s the company now? It’s cringing against the wall.

He takes his leave of Cranmer, embracing him, whispering: ‘All will work for good.’ Young Richmond touches his arm: ‘Master Secretary, there is something I must tell you.’

He is tired. He was up at dawn writing letters into Europe. ‘Is it urgent, my lord?’

‘No. But it is important.’

Imagine having a master who knows the difference. ‘Go ahead, my lord, I am all attention.’

‘I want to tell you, I have had a woman now.’

‘I hope that she was all you desired.’

The boy laughs uncertainly. ‘Not really. She was a whore. My brother Surrey arranged it for me.’ Norfolk’s son, he means. By the light of a sconce, the boy’s face flickers, gold to black to cross-hatched gold again, as if he were dipped in shadows. ‘But this being so, I am a man, and I think Norfolk should let me live with my wife.’

Richmond has already been married off, to Norfolk’s daughter, little Mary Howard. For reasons of his own, Norfolk has kept the children apart; if Anne had given Henry a son in wedlock, the bastard boy would be worthless to the king, and it has entered Norfolk’s calculations that in that case, if his daughter was a virgin, he could perhaps marry her more usefully elsewhere.

But all those calculations are needless now. ‘I’ll speak to the duke for you,’ he says. ‘I think he will now be keen to fall in with your wishes.’

Richmond flushes: pleasure, embarrassment? The boy is no fool and knows his situation, which in a few days has improved beyond all measure. He, Cromwell, can hear the voice of Norfolk, as clear as if he were reasoning in the king’s council: Katherine’s daughter has been made a bastard already, Anne’s daughter will follow, so all three of Henry’s children are illegitimate. If that is so, why not prefer the male to the female?

‘Master Secretary,’ the boy says, ‘the servants in my household are saying Elizabeth is not even the queen’s child. They say she was smuggled into the bedchamber in a basket, and the queen’s dead child carried out.’

‘Why would she do that?’ He is always curious to hear the reasoning of household servants.

‘It is because, to be queen, she struck a bargain with the devil. But the devil always cheats you. He let her be queen, but he would not let her bear a live child.’

‘You would think the devil would have sharpened her wit, though. If she was bringing in a baby in a basket, surely she would have brought in a boy?’

Richmond manages a miserable smile. ‘Perhaps she laid hold of the only baby she could get. After all, people do not leave them in the street.’

They do, though. He is bringing in a bill to the new Parliament, to provide for the orphan boys of London. His idea is, look after the orphan boys, and they will look after the girls.

‘Sometimes,’ the boy says, ‘I think about the cardinal. Do you ever think of him?’ He sinks down to sit on a chest; and he, Cromwell, sits down with him. ‘When I was a very little child, and very foolish as children are, I used to think the cardinal was my father.’

‘The cardinal was your godfather.’

‘Yes, but I thought…Because he was so tender to me. He would visit me and carry me, and though he gave me great gifts of gold plate, he brought me a silk ball and also a doll, which you know, boys do like…’ he drops his head, ‘when they are little children, and I am speaking of when I was still in a gown. I knew there was some secret about me, and I thought that was it, that I was a priest’s son. When the king came he was a stranger to me. He brought me a sword.’

‘And did you guess then that he was your father?’

‘No,’ says the boy. He opens his hands, to show his helpless nature, the nature he had as a little child. ‘No. It had to be explained to me. Do not tell him, please. He would not understand.’

Of all the shocks the king has received, it could be the greatest, to know that his son did not recognise him. ‘Has he many other children?’ Richmond asks. He speaks, now, with the authority of a man of the world. ‘I suppose he must have.’

‘To my knowledge, he has no child who could hurt your claim. They said Mary Boleyn’s son was his, but she was married at the time and the boy took her husband’s name.’

‘But I suppose he will marry Mistress Seymour now, when this marriage,’ the boy stumbles over his words, ‘when whatever is to happen, when it happens. And she will have a son, perhaps, because the Seymours are fertile stock.’

‘If that occurs,’ he says gently, ‘you must stand ready, the first to congratulate the king. And you must be prepared all your life to place yourself at the service of this little prince. But on a more immediate matter, if I may advise…if your living with your wife should be further delayed, it is best to find a kind and clean young woman and make an arrangement with her. Then when you part from her, pay her some small retainer so she does not talk about you.’

‘Is that what you do, Master Secretary?’ The question is ingenuous, but for a moment he wonders if the boy is spying for someone.

‘It is better not discussed between gentlemen,’ he says. ‘And emulate your father the king, who in speaking of women is never coarse.’ Violent, perhaps, he thinks: but never coarse. ‘Be prudent and do not deal with whores. You must not catch a disease, like the French king. Then also, if your young woman gives you a child, you have its keeping and bringing up, and you know it is not another man’s.’

‘But you cannot be sure…’ Richmond breaks off. The realities of the world are tumbling in fast on this young man. ‘If the king can be deceived, surely any man can be deceived. If married ladies are false, any gentleman could be bringing up another man’s child.’

He smiles. ‘But another gentleman would be bringing up his.’

He means to begin, when he has time to plan it, some form of registration, documentation to record baptisms so he can count the king’s subjects and know who they are, or at least, who their mothers say they are: family name and paternity are two different things, but one must start somewhere. He scans the faces of the Londoners as he rides through the city, and he thinks of streets in other cities where he has lived or passed through, and he wonders. I could do with more children, he thinks. He has been continent in his living as far as it is reasonable for a man to be, but the cardinal used to invent scandals about him and his many concubines. Whenever some stout young felon was dragged to the gallows, the cardinal would say, ‘There, Thomas, that will be one of yours.’

The boy yawns. ‘I am so tired,’ he says. ‘Yet I have not been hunting today. So I don’t know why.’

Richmond’s servants are hovering: their badge a demi-lion rampant, their livery of blue and yellow faded in the failing light. Like nursemaids snatching up a child from muddy puddles, they want to sweep the young duke away from whatever Cromwell is plotting. There is a climate of fear and he has created it. Nobody knows how long the arrests will go on and who else will be taken. He feels even he does not know, and he is in charge of it. George Boleyn is lodged in the Tower. Weston and Brereton have been allowed a last night to sleep in the world, a few hours’ grace to arrange their affairs; this time tomorrow the key will have turned on them: they could run, but where to? None of the men except Mark have been properly interrogated: that is to say, interrogated by him. But the scrapping for the spoils has begun. Norris had not been in ward for a day before the first letter came in, seeking a share of his offices and privileges, from a man who pleaded he had fourteen children. Fourteen hungry mouths: not to mention the man’s own needs, and the snapping teeth of his lady wife.

* * *

Next day, early, he says to William Fitzwilliam, ‘Come with me to the Tower to talk to Norris.’

Fitz says, ‘No, you go. I cannot do it a second time. I have known him all my years. The first time nearly killed me.’

Gentle Norris: chief bottom-wiper to the king, spinner of silk threads, spider of spiders, black centre of the vast dripping web of court patronage: what a spry and amiable man he is, past forty but wearing it lightly. Norris is a man always in equipoise, a living illustration of the art of sprezzatura. No one has ever seen him ruffled. He has the air of a man who has not so much achieved success, as become resigned to it. He is as courteous to a dairy maid as to a duke; at least, for as long he has an audience. A master of the tournament ground, he breaks a lance with an air of apology, and when he counts the coin of the realm he washes his hands afterwards, in spring water scented with rose petals.

Nevertheless, Harry has grown rich, as those about the king cannot help but grow rich, however modestly they strive; when Harry snaps up some perquisite, it is as if he, your obedient servant, were sweeping away from your sight something distasteful. And when he volunteers for some lucrative office, it is as if he is doing it out of a sense of duty, and to save lesser men the trouble.

But look at Gentle Norris now! It is a sad thing to see a strong man weep. He says so, as he sits down, and enquires after his keeping, whether he is being served with the food he likes and how he has slept. His manner is benign and easy. ‘During the days of Christmas last, Master Norris, you impersonated a Moor, and William Brereton showed himself half-naked in the guise of a hunter or wild man of the woods, going towards the queen’s chamber.’

‘For God’s sake, Cromwell,’ Norris sniffs. ‘Are you in earnest? You are asking me in all seriousness about what we did when we were costumed for a masque?’

‘I counselled him, William Brereton, against exposing his person. Your retort was that the queen had seen it many a time.’

Norris reddens: as he did on the date in question. ‘You mistake me on purpose. You know I meant that she is a married woman and so a man’s…a man’s gear is no strange sight to her.’

‘You know what you meant. I only know what you said. You must admit that such a remark would not strike the king’s ear as innocent. On the same occasion as we were standing in conversation we saw Francis Weston, disguised. And you remarked he was going to the queen.’

‘At least he wasn’t naked,’ Norris says. ‘In a dragon suit, wasn’t he?’

‘He was not naked when we saw him, I agree. But what did you say next? You spoke to me of the queen’s attraction to him. You were jealous, Harry. And you didn’t deny it. Tell me what you know against Weston. It will be easier for you thereafter.’

Norris has pulled himself together and blown his nose. ‘All you are alleging is some loose words capable of many interpretations. If you are seeking proofs of adultery, Cromwell, you will have to do better than this.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. By the nature of the thing, there is seldom a witness to the act. But we consider circumstances and opportunities and expressed desires, we consider weighty probabilities, and we consider confessions.’

‘You will have no confession from me or Brereton either.’

‘I wonder.’

‘You will not put gentlemen to the torture, the king would not permit it.’

‘There don’t have to be formal arrangements.’ He is on his feet, he slams his hand down on the table. ‘I could put my thumbs in your eyes, and then you would sing “Green Grows the Holly” if I asked you to.’ He sits down, resumes his former easy tone. ‘Put yourself in my place. People will say I have tortured you anyway. They will say I have tortured Mark, they are already putting the word about. Though not a gossamer thread of him is snapped, I swear. I have Mark’s free confession. He has given me names. Some of them surprised me. But I have mastered myself.’

‘You are lying.’ Norris looks away. ‘You are trying to trick us into betraying, each man the other.’

‘The king knows what to think. He does not ask for eyewitnesses. He knows your treason and the queen’s.’

‘Ask yourself,’ Norris says, ‘how likely is it, that I should so forget my honour, as to betray the king who has been so good to me and to place in such terrible danger a lady I revere? My family has served the King of England time out of mind. My great-grandfather served King Henry VI, that saintly man, God rest his soul. My grandfather served King Edward, and would have served his son if he had lived to reign, and after he was driven out of the realm by the scorpion Richard Plantagenet, he served Henry Tudor in exile, and served him still when he was crowned king. I have been at the side of Henry since I was a boy. I love him like a brother. Do you have a brother, Cromwell?’

‘None living.’ He looks at Norris, exasperated. He seems to think that with eloquence, with sincerity, with frankness, he can change what is happening. The whole court has seen him slobbering over the queen. How could he expect to go shopping with his eyes, and finger the goods no doubt, and not have an account to settle at the end of it?

He gets up, he walks away, he turns, he shakes his head: he sighs. ‘Ah, for God’s sake, Harry Norris. Have I to write it on the wall for you? The king must be rid of her. She cannot give him a son and he is out of love with her. He loves another lady and he cannot come at her unless Anne is removed. Now, is that simple enough for your simple tastes? Anne will not go quietly, she warned me of it once; she said, if ever Henry puts me aside, it will be war. So if she will not go, she must be pushed, and I must push her, who else? Do you recognise the situation? Will you take your mind back? In a like case, my old master Wolsey could not gratify the king, and then what? He was disgraced and driven to his death. Now I mean to learn from him, and I mean the king to be gratified in every respect. He is now a miserable cuckold, but he will forget it when he is a bridegroom again, and it will not be long.’

‘I suppose the Seymours have the wedding feast ready.’

He grins. ‘And Tom Seymour is having his hair curled. And on that wedding day, the king will be happy, I will be happy, all England will be happy, except Norris, for I fear he will be dead. I see no help for it, unless you confess and throw yourself on the king’s mercy. He has promised mercy. And he keeps his promises. Mostly.’

‘I rode with him from Greenwich,’ Norris says, ‘away from the tournament, all that long ride. Every stride he badgered me, what have you done, confess. I will tell you what I told him, that I am an innocent man. And what is worse,’ and now he is losing his composure, he is irate, ‘what is worse is that you and he both know it. Tell me this, why is it me? Why not Wyatt? Everyone suspects him with Anne, and has he ever directly denied it? Wyatt knew her before. He knew her in Kent. He knew her from her girlhood.’

‘And so what of it? He knew her when she was a simple maid. What if he did meddle with her? It may be shameful but it is no treason. It is not like meddling with the king’s wife, the Queen of England.’

‘I am not ashamed of any dealings I have had with Anne.’

‘Are you ashamed of your thoughts about her, perhaps? You told Fitzwilliam as much.’

‘Did I?’ Norris says bleakly. ‘Is that what he took away, from what I said to him? That I am ashamed? And if I am, Cromwell, even if I am…you cannot make my thoughts a crime.’

He holds out his palms. ‘If thoughts are intentions, if intentions are malign…if you did not have her unlawfully, and you say you did not, did you intend to have her lawfully, after the king’s death? It is getting on six years since your wife died, why have you not married again?’

‘Why haven’t you?’

He nods. ‘A good question. I ask myself. But I have not promised myself to a young woman, and then broken my promise, as you have. Mary Shelton has lost her honour to you –’

Norris laughs. ‘To me? To the king, rather.’

‘But the king was not in a position to marry her, and you were, and she had your pledge, and yet you dallied. Did you think the king would die, so you could marry Anne? Or did you expect her to dishonour her marriage vows during the king’s life, and become your concubine? It is one or the other.’

‘If I say either, you will damn me. You will damn me if I say nothing at all, taking my silence for agreement.’

‘Francis Weston thinks you are guilty.’

‘That Francis thinks anything, is news to me. Why would he…?’ Norris breaks off. ‘What, is he here? In the Tower?’

‘He is in ward.’

Norris shakes his head. ‘He is a boy. How can you do this to his people? I admit he is a careless, headstrong boy, he is known to be no favourite of mine, it is known we have cut across each other –’

‘Ah, rivals in love.’ He puts his hand to his heart.

‘By no means.’ Ah, Harry is ruffled now: he has flushed darkly, he is trembling with rage and fear.

‘And what do you think to brother George?’ he asks him. ‘You may have been surprised to encounter rivalry from that quarter. I hope you were surprised. Though the morals of you gentlemen astonish me.’

‘You do not trap me that way. Any man you name, I will say nothing against him and nothing for him. I have no opinion on George Boleyn.’

‘What, no opinion on incest? If you take it so quietly and without objection, I am forced to conjecture there may be truth in it.’

‘And if I were to say, I think there might be guilt in that case, you would say to me, “Why, Norris! Incest! How can you believe such an abomination? Is it a ploy to lead me away from your own guilt?”’

He looks at Norris with admiration. ‘Not for nothing have you known me twenty years, Harry.’

‘Oh, I have studied you,’ Norris says. ‘As I studied your master Wolsey before you.’

‘That was politic in you. Such a great servant of the state.’

‘And such a great traitor at the end.’

‘I must take your mind back. I do not ask you to remember the manifold favours you received at the cardinal’s hands. I only ask you to recall an entertainment, a certain interlude played at court. It was a play in which the late cardinal was set upon by demons and carried down to Hell.’

He sees Norris’s eyes move, as the scene rises before him: the firelight, the heat, the baying spectators. Himself and Boleyn grasping the victim’s hands, Brereton and Weston laying hold of him by his feet. The four of them tossing the scarlet figure, tumbling him and kicking him. Four men, who for a joke turned the cardinal into a beast; who took away his wit, his kindness and his grace, and made him a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.

It was not truly the cardinal, of course. It was the jester Sexton in a scarlet robe. But the audience catcalled as if it had been real, they yelled and shook their fists, they swore and mocked. Behind a screen the four devils pulled off their masks and their hairy jerkins, cursing and laughing. They saw Thomas Cromwell leaning against the panelling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.

Now, Norris gapes at him: ‘And that is why? It was a play. It was an entertainment, as you said yourself. The cardinal was dead, he could not know. And while he was alive, was I not good to him in his trouble? Did I not, when he was exiled from court, ride after him, and come to him on Putney Heath with a token from the king’s own hand?’

He nods. ‘I concede that others behaved worse. But you see, none of you behaved like Christians. You behaved like savages instead, falling on his estates and possessions.’

He sees he need not continue. The indignation on Norris’s face is replaced by a look of blank terror. At least, he thinks, the fellow has the wit to see what this is about: not one year’s grudge or two, but a fat extract from the book of grief, kept since the cardinal came down. He says, ‘Life pays you out, Norris. Don’t you find? And,’ he adds gently, ‘it is not all about the cardinal, either. I would not want you to think I am without motives of my own.’

Norris raises his face. ‘What has Mark Smeaton done to you?’

‘Mark?’ He laughs. ‘I don’t like the way he looks at me.’

Would Norris understand if he spelled it out? He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

A silence falls. He sits, he waits, his eyes on the dying man. He is already thinking what he will do with Norris’s offices, his Crown grants. He will try to oblige the humble applicants, like the man with fourteen children, who wants the keeping of a park at Windsor and a post in the administration of the castle. Norris’s offices in Wales can be parcelled out to young Richmond, and that will bring the posts in effect back to the king and under his own supervision. And Rafe could have the Norris estate at Greenwich, he could house Helen and the children there when he has to be at court. And Edward Seymour has mentioned he would like Norris’s house in Kew.

Harry Norris says, ‘I assume you will not just lead us out to execution. There will be a process, a trial? Yes? I hope it will be quick. I suppose it will. The cardinal used to say, Cromwell will do in a week what will take another man a year, it is not worth your while to block him or oppose him. If you reach out to grip him he will not be there, he will have ridden twenty miles while you are pulling your boots on.’ He looks up. ‘If you intend to kill me in public, and mount a show, be quick. Or I may die of grief alone in this room.’

He shakes his head. ‘You’ll live.’ He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

Norris touches his ribs. ‘The pain is here. I felt it last night. I sat up, breathless. I durst not lie down again.’

‘When he was brought down, the cardinal said the same. The pain was like a whetstone, he said. A whetstone, and the knife was drawn across it. And it ground away, till he was dead.’

He rises, picks up his papers: inclining his head, takes his leave. Henry Norris: left forepaw.

William Brereton. Gentleman of Cheshire. Servant in Wales to the young Duke of Richmond, and a bad servant too. A turbulent, arrogant, hard-as-nails man, from a turbulent line.

‘Let’s go back,’ he says, ‘let’s go back to the cardinal’s time, because I do remember someone of your household killed a man during a bowls match.’

‘The game can get very heated,’ Brereton says. ‘You know yourself. You play, I hear.’

‘And the cardinal thought, it is time for a reckoning; and your family were fined because they impeded the investigation. I ask myself, has anything changed since then? You think you can do anything because you are the Duke of Richmond’s servant, and because Norfolk favours you –’

‘The king himself favours me.’

He raises his eyebrows. ‘Does he? Then you should complain to him. Because you are ill-lodged, are you not? Sadly for you, the king is not here, so you must make do with me and my long memory. But let us not cast back for instances. Look, for instance, at the case of the Flintshire gentleman, John ap Eyton. That is so recent you have not forgot it.’

‘So that is why I am here,’ Brereton says.

‘Not entirely, but leave aside now your adultery with the queen and concentrate on Eyton. The facts of the case are known to you. There is a quarrel, blows exchanged, one of your household ends up dead, but the man Eyton is tried in due form before a London jury, and is acquitted. Now, having no respect for either law or justice, you swear revenge. You have the Welshman abducted. Your servants hang him out of hand, all this – do not interrupt me, man – all this with your permission and contrivance. I give this as one instance. You think this is only one man and he doesn’t matter, but you see he does. You think a year or more has passed and no one remembers, but I remember. You believe the law should be what you would like it to be, and it is on that principle that you conduct yourself in your holdings on the marches of Wales, where the king’s justice and the king’s name are brought into contempt every day. The place is a stronghold of thieves.’

‘You say I am a thief?’

‘I say you consort with them. But your schemes end here.’

‘You are judge and jury and hangman, is that it?’

‘It is better justice than Eyton had.’

And Brereton says, ‘I concede that.’

What a fall this is. Only days ago, he was petitioning Master Secretary for spoils, when the abbey lands in Cheshire should be given out. Now no doubt the words run through his head, the words he used to Master Secretary when he complained of his high-handed ways: I must tutor you in realities, he had said coldly. We are not creatures of some lawyers’ conclave at Gray’s Inn. In my own country, my family upholds the law, and the law is what we care to uphold.

Now he, Master Secretary, asks, ‘Do you think Weston has had to do with the queen?’

‘Perhaps,’ Brereton looks as if he hardly cares, one way or the other. ‘I barely know him. He is young and foolish and good-looking, isn’t he, and women regard these things? And she may be a queen but she is only a woman, who knows what she might be persuaded to?’

‘You think women more foolish than men?’

‘In general, yes. And weaker. In matters of love.’

‘I note your opinion.’

‘What about Wyatt, Cromwell? Where is he in this?’

‘You are in no place,’ he says, ‘to put questions to me.’ William Brereton; left hindpaw.

George Boleyn is well past thirty, but he still has the sheen we admire in the young, the sparkle and the clear gaze. It is hard to associate his pleasant person with the kind of bestial appetite of which his wife accuses him, and for a moment he looks at George and wonders if he can be guilty of any offences, except a certain pride and elation. With the graces of his person and mind, he could have floated and hovered above the court and its sordid machinations, a man of refinement moving in his own sphere: commissioning translations of the ancient poets, and causing them to be published in exquisite editions. He could have ridden pretty white horses that curvet and bow in front of ladies. Unfortunately, he liked to quarrel and brag, intrigue and snub. As we find him now, in his light circular room in the Martin Tower, we find him pacing, hungry for conflict, we ask ourselves, does he know why he is here? Or is that surprise still to come?

‘You are perhaps not much to blame,’ he says, as he takes his seat: he, Thomas Cromwell. ‘Join me at this table,’ he directs. ‘One hears of prisoners wearing a path through stone, but I do not believe it can really happen. It would take three hundred years perhaps.’

Boleyn says, ‘You are accusing me of some sort of collusion, concealment, concealing misconduct on my sister’s part, but this charge will not stand, because there was no misconduct.’

‘No, my lord, that is not the charge.’

‘Then what?’

‘That is not what you are accused of. Sir Francis Bryan, who is a man of great imaginative capacities –’

‘Bryan!’ Boleyn looks horrified. ‘But you know he is an enemy of mine.’ His words tumble over each other. ‘What has he said, how can you credit anything he says?’

‘Sir Francis has explained it all to me. And I begin to see it. How a man may hardly know his sister, and meet her as a grown woman. She is like himself, yet not. She is familiar, yet piques his interest. One day his brotherly embrace is a little longer than usual. The business progresses from there. Perhaps neither party feels they are doing anything wrong, till some frontier is crossed. But I myself am far too lacking in imagination to imagine what that frontier could be.’ He pauses. ‘Did it begin before her marriage, or after?’

Boleyn begins to tremble. It is shock; he can hardly speak. ‘I refuse to answer this.’

‘My lord, I am accustomed to dealing with those who refuse to answer.’

‘Are you threatening me with the rack?’

‘Well, now, I didn’t rack Thomas More, did I? I sat in a room with him. A room here at the Tower, such as the one you occupy. I listened to the murmurs within his silence. Construction can be put on silence. It will be.’

George says: ‘Henry killed his father’s councillors. He killed the Duke of Buckingham. He destroyed the cardinal and harried him to his death, and struck the head off one of Europe’s great scholars. Now he plans to kill his wife and her family and Norris who has been his closest friend. What makes you think it will be different with you, that are not the equal of any of these men?’

He says, ‘It ill becomes anyone of your family to evoke the cardinal’s name. Or Thomas More’s, for that matter. Your lady sister burned for vengeance. She would say to me, what, Thomas More, is he not dead yet?’

‘Who began this slander against me? It is not Francis Bryan, surely. Is it my wife? Yes. I should have known.’

‘You make the assumption. I do not confirm it. You must have a guilty conscience towards her, if you think she has such cause to hate you.’

‘And will you believe something so monstrous?’ George begs. ‘On the word of one woman?’

‘There are other women who have been recipients of your gallantry. I will not bring them before a court if I can help it, I can do that much to protect them. You have always regarded women as disposable, my lord, and you cannot complain if in the end they think the same of you.’

‘So am I to be put on trial for gallantry? Yes, they are jealous of me, you are all jealous, I have had some success with women.’

‘You still call it success? You must think again.’

‘I never heard it was a crime. To spend time with a willing lover.’

‘You had better not say that in your defence. If one of your lovers is your sister…the court will find it, what shall we say…pert and bold. Lacking in gravity. What would save you now – I mean, what might preserve your life – would be a full statement of all you know about your sister’s dealings with other men. Some suggest there are liaisons which would put yours in the shade, unnatural though it may be.’

‘You are a Christian man, and you ask me this? To give evidence to kill my sister?’

He opens his hands. ‘I ask nothing. I only point out what some would see as the way forward. I do not know whether the king would incline to mercy. He might let you live abroad, or he might grant you mercy as to the manner of your death. Or not. The traitor’s penalty, as you know, is fearful and public; he dies in great pain and humiliation. I see you do know, you have witnessed it.’

Boleyn folds into himself: narrowing himself, arms across his body, as if to protect his guts from the butcher’s knife, and he slumps to a stool; he thinks, you should have done that before, I told you to sit, you see how without touching you I have made you sit? He tells him softly, ‘You profess the gospel, my lord, and that you are saved. But your actions do not suggest you are saved.’

‘You may take your thumbprints off my soul,’ George says. ‘I discuss these matters with my chaplains.’

‘Yes, so they tell me. I think you have become too assured of forgiveness, believing you have years ahead of you to sin and yet though God sees all he must be patient, like a waiting man: and you will notice him at last, and answer his suit, if only he will wait till you are old. Is that your case?’

‘I will speak to my confessor about that.’

‘I am your confessor now. Did you say, in the hearing of others, that the king was impotent?’

George sneers at him. ‘He can do it when the weather is set fair.’

‘In doing so, you called into question the parentage of the Princess Elizabeth. You will readily see this is treason, as she is the heir to England.’

Faute de mieux, as far as you’re concerned.’

‘The king now believes he could not have a son from this marriage, as it was not lawful. He believes there were hidden impediments and that your sister was not frank about her past. He means to make a new marriage, which will be clean.’

‘I marvel you explain yourself,’ George says. ‘You never did so before.’

‘I do so for one reason – so that you can realise your situation and entertain no false hope. These chaplains you speak of, I will send them to you. They are fit company for you now.’

‘God grants sons to every beggar,’ George says. ‘He grants them to the illicit union, as well as the blessed, to the whore as well as the queen. I wonder that the king can be so simple.’

‘It is a holy simplicity,’ he says. ‘He is an anointed sovereign, and so very close to God.’

Boleyn scrutinises his expression, for levity or scorn: but he knows his face says nothing, he can rely on his face for that. You could look back through Boleyn’s career, and say, ‘There he went wrong, and there.’ He was too proud, too singular, unwilling to bridle his whims or turn himself to use. He needs to learn to bend with the breeze, like his father; but the time he has to learn anything is running out fast. There is a time to stand on your dignity, but there is a time to abandon it in the interests of your safety. There is a time to smirk behind the hand of cards you have drawn, and there is a time to throw down your purse on the table and say, ‘Thomas Cromwell, you win.’

George Boleyn, right forepaw.

By the time he gets to Francis Weston (right hindpaw) he has been approached by the young man’s family and offered a great deal of money. Politely, he has refused them; in their circumstances he would do just the same, except that it is hard to imagine Gregory or any member of his household to be such a fool as this young man has been.

The Weston family go further: they approach the king himself. They will make an offering, they will make a benevolence, they will make a large and unconditional donation to the king’s treasury. He discusses it with Fitzwilliam: ‘I cannot advise His Majesty. It is possible that lesser charges can be brought. It depends how much His Majesty thinks his honour is touched.’

But the king is not disposed to be lenient. Fitzwilliam says grimly, ‘If I were Weston’s people, I would pay the money anyway. To ensure favour. Afterwards.’

That is the very approach he has settled on himself, thinking of the Boleyn family (those who survive) and the Howards. He will shake the ancestral oaks and gold coins will drop each season.

Even before he comes to the room where Weston is held, the young man knows what to expect; he knows who is gaoled with him; he knows or has a good idea of the charges; his gaolers must have babbled, because he, Cromwell, has cut off communication between the four men. A talkative gaoler can be useful; he can nudge a prisoner towards cooperation, towards acceptance, towards despair. Weston must guess his family’s initiative has failed. You look at Cromwell and you think, if bribery won’t do it, nothing else will. It’s useless to protest or disclaim or contradict. Abasement might just do it, it’s worth a try. ‘I taunted you, sir,’ Francis says. ‘I belittled you. I am sorry I ever did so. You are the king’s servant and it was proper for me to respect that.’

‘Well, that is a handsome apology,’ he says. ‘Though you should beg forgiveness of the king and of Jesus Christ.’

Francis says, ‘You know I am not long married.’

‘And your wife left at home in the country. For obvious reasons.’

‘Can I write to her? I have a son. He is not yet a year.’ A silence. ‘I wish my soul to be prayed for after I am dead.’

He would have thought God could make his own decisions, but Weston believes the creator may be pushed and coaxed and maybe bribed a little. As if following his thought, Weston says, ‘I am in debt, Master Secretary. To the tune of a thousand pounds. I am sorry for it now.’

‘No one expects a gallant young gentleman like yourself to be thrifty.’ His tone is kindly, and Weston looks up. ‘Of course, these debts are more than you could reasonably pay, and even set against the assets you will have when your father dies, they are a heavy burden. So your extravagance gives people to think, what expectations had young Weston?’

For a moment, the young man looks at him with a dumb, rebellious expression, as if he does not see why this should be brought against him: what have his debts to do with anything? He does not see where it is leading. Then he does. He, Cromwell, puts out a hand to grab his clothes, to stop him slumping forward in shock. ‘A jury will easily grasp the point. We know the queen gave you money. How could you live as you did? It is easy to see. A thousand pounds is nothing to you, if you hoped to marry her once you had contrived the king’s death.’

When he is sure that Weston can sit upright, he opens his fist and eases his grip. Mechanically, the boy reaches up and straightens his clothes, straightens the little ruff of his shirt collar.

‘Your wife will be taken care of,’ he tells him. ‘Have no unease on that score. The king never extends animosity to widows. She will be cared for better, I dare say, than you ever cared for her.’

Weston looks up. ‘I cannot fault your reasoning. I see how it will weigh when it is given in evidence. I have been a fool and you have stood by and seen it all. I know how I have undone myself. I cannot fault your conduct either, because I would have injured you if I could. And I know I have not lived a good…I have not lived…you see, I thought I should have another twenty years or more to live as I have, and then when I am old, forty-five or fifty, I should give to hospitals and endow a chantry, and God would see I was sorry.’

He nods. ‘Well, Francis,’ he says. ‘We know not the hour, do we?’

‘But Master Secretary, you know that whatever wrong I have done, I am not guilty in this matter of the queen. I see by your face you know it, and all the people will know it too when I am brought out to die, and the king will know it and think about it in his private hours. I shall be remembered, therefore. As the innocent are remembered.’

It would be cruel to disturb that belief; he looks to his death to give him greater fame than his life has done. All the years that stretched before him, and no reason to believe that he meant to make any better use of them than he made of the first twenty-five; he himself says not. Brought up under the wing of his sovereign, a courtier since he was a child, from a family of courtiers: never a moment’s doubt about his place in the world, never a moment’s anxiety, never a moment’s thankfulness for the great privilege of having been born Francis Weston, born in the eye of fortune, born to serve a great king and a great nation: he will leave nothing but his debt, and a tarnished name, and a son: and anyone can father a son, he says to himself: until he remembers why we are here and what all this is about. He says, ‘Your wife has written for you to the king. Asking for mercy. You have a great many friends.’

‘Much good they will do me.’

‘I do not think you realise that at this juncture, many men would find themselves alone. It should cheer you. You should not be bitter, Francis. Fortune is fickle, every young adventurer knows that. Resign yourself. Regard Norris. No bitterness there.’

‘Perhaps,’ the young man blurts, ‘perhaps Norris thinks he has no reason for bitterness. Perhaps his regrets are honest ones, and necessary. Perhaps he deserves to die, as I do not.’

‘He is well paid out, you think, for meddling with the queen.’

‘He is always in her company. It is not to discuss the gospel.’

He is, perhaps, on the verge of a denunciation. Norris had begun on some admission to William Fitzwilliam, but he bit it back. Perhaps the facts will come out now? He waits: sees the boy’s head sink into his hands; then, impelled by something, he does not know what, he stands up, says, ‘Francis, excuse me,’ and walks out of the room.

Outside Wriothesley is waiting, with gentlemen of his household. They are leaning against the wall, sharing some joke. They stir at the sight of him, look expectant. ‘Are we finished?’ Wriothesley says. ‘He has confessed?’

He shakes his head. ‘Each man will give a good account of himself, but he will not absolve his fellows. Also, they will all say “I am innocent,” but they do not say, “She is innocent.” They are not able. It may be she is, but none of them will give his word on it.’

It is just as Wyatt once told him: ‘The worst of it is,’ he had said, ‘her hinting to me, her boasting almost, that she says no to me, but yes to others.’

‘Well, you have no confessions,’ Wriothesley says. ‘Do you want us to get them?’

He gives Call-Me a look that knocks him back, so he steps on the foot of Richard Riche. ‘What, Wriothesley, do you think I am too soft to the young?’

Riche rubs his foot. ‘Shall we draw up specimen charges?’

‘The more the merrier. Forgive me, I need a moment…’

Riche assumes he has gone out to piss. He does not know what caused him to break off from Weston and walk out. Perhaps it was when the boy said ‘forty-five or fifty’. As if, past mid-life, there is a second childhood, a new phase of innocence. It touched him, perhaps, the simplicity of it. Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

* * *

May is blossoming even in the city streets. He takes flowers in to the ladies in the Tower. Christophe has to carry the bouquets. The boy is filling out and looks like a bull garlanded for sacrifice. He wonders what they did with their sacrifices, the pagans and the Jews of the Old Testament; surely they would not waste fresh meat, but give it to the poor?

Anne is housed in the suite of rooms that were redecorated for her coronation. He himself had overseen the work, and watched as goddesses, with their soft and brilliant dark eyes, blossomed on the walls. They bask in sunlit groves, under cypress trees; a white doe peeps through foliage, while the hunters head off in another direction, and hounds lollop ahead of them, making their hound music.

Lady Kingston rises to greet him, and he says, ‘Sit down, dear madam…’ Where is Anne? Not here in her presence chamber.

‘She is praying,’ one of the Boleyn aunts says. ‘So we left her to it.’

‘She has been a while,’ the other aunt says. ‘Are we sure she hasn’t got a man in there?’

The aunts giggle; he does not join them; Lady Kingston gives them a hard look.

The queen emerges from the little oratory; she has heard his voice. Sunlight strikes her face. It is true what Lady Rochford says, she has begun to line. If you did not know she was a woman who had held a king’s heart in her hand, you would take her for a very ordinary person. He supposes there will always be a strained levity in her, a practised coyness. She will be one of those women who at fifty thinks she is still in the game: one of those tired old experts in innuendo, women who simper like maids and put their hand on your arm, who exchange glances with other women when a prospect like Tom Seymour heaves into view.

But of course, she will never be fifty. He wonders if this is the last time he will see her, before the courtroom. She sits down, in shadow, in the midst of the women. The Tower always feels damp from the river and even these new, bright rooms feel clammy. He asks if she would like furs brought in, and she says, ‘Yes. Ermine. Also, I do not want these women. I should like women of my own choosing, not yours.’

‘Lady Kingston attends you because –’

‘Because she is your spy.’

‘– because she is your hostess.’

‘Am I then her guest? A guest is free to leave.’

‘I thought you would like to have Mistress Orchard,’ he says, ‘as she is your old nurse. And I didn’t think you would object to your aunts.’

‘They have grudges against me, both of them. All I see and hear is sniggering and tutting.’

‘Jesus! Do you expect applause?’

This is the trouble with the Boleyns: they hate their own kin. ‘You will not speak in that way to me,’ Anne says, ‘when I am released.’

‘I apologise. I spoke without thinking.’

‘I do not know what the king means by holding me here. I suppose he does it to test me. It is some stratagem he has devised, yes?’

She does not really think that, so he does not answer.

‘I should like to see my brother,’ Anne says.

One aunt, Lady Shelton, looks up from her needlework. ‘That is a foolish demand, in the circumstances.’

‘Where is my father?’ Anne says. ‘I do not understand why he does not come to my aid.’

‘He is lucky to be at liberty,’ Lady Shelton says. ‘Expect no help there. Thomas Boleyn always looked after himself first, and I know it, for I am his sister.’

Anne ignores her. ‘And my bishops, where are they? I have nourished them, I have protected them, I have furthered the cause of religion, so why do they not go to the king for me?’

The other Boleyn aunt laughs. ‘You expect bishops to intervene, to make excuses for your adultery?’

It is evident that, in this court, Anne has already been tried. He says to her, ‘Help the king. Unless he is merciful your cause is lost, you can do nothing for yourself. But you may do something for your daughter Elizabeth. The more humbly you hold yourself, the more penitent you show yourself, the more patiently you bear with the process, the less bitterness will His Majesty feel when your name is raised hereafter.’

‘Ah, the process,’ Anne says, with a flash of her old sharpness. ‘And what is this process to be?’

‘The confessions of the gentlemen are now being compiled.’

‘The what?’ Anne says.

‘You heard,’ Lady Shelton says. ‘They will not lie for you.’

‘There may be other arrests, other charges, though by speaking out now, by being open with us, you could shorten the pain for all concerned. The gentlemen will come to trial together. For yourself and my lord your brother, since you are ennobled, you will be judged by your peers.’

‘They have no witnesses. They can make any accusation, and I can say no to it.’

‘That is true,’ he concedes. ‘Though it is not true about the witnesses. When you were at liberty, madam, your ladies were intimidated by you, forced to lie for you, but now they are emboldened.’

‘I am sure they are.’ She holds his gaze; her tone is scornful. ‘In the way Seymour is emboldened. Tell her from me, God sees her tricks.’

He stands to take his leave. She unnerves him, the wild distress she is keeping in check, holding back but only just. There seems no point in prolonging the business, but he says, ‘If the king begins a process to nullify your marriage, I may return, to take statements from you.’

‘What?’ she says. ‘That too? Is it necessary? Murder will not be enough?’

He bows and turns away. ‘No!’ She fetches him back. She is on her feet, detaining him, timidly touching his arm; as if it is not her release she wants, so much as his good opinion. ‘You do not believe these stories against me? I know in your heart you do not. Cremuel?’

It is a long moment. He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information. He turns, hesitates, and reaches out, tentative…

But then she raises her hands and clasps them at her breast, in the gesture Lady Rochford had showed him. Ah, Queen Esther, he thinks. She is not innocent; she can only mimic innocence. His hand drops to his side. He turns away. He knows her for a woman without remorse. He believes she would commit any sin or crime. He believes she is her father’s daughter, that never since childhood has she taken any action, coaxed or coerced, that might damage her own interests. But in one gesture, she has damaged them now.

She has seen his face change. She steps back, puts her hands around her throat: like a strangler she closes them around her own flesh. ‘I have only a little neck,’ she says. ‘It will be the work of a moment.’

Kingston hurries out to meet him; he wants to talk. ‘She keeps doing that. Her hands around her neck. And laughing.’ His honest gaoler’s face is dismayed. ‘I cannot see that it is any occasion for laughter. And there are other foolish sayings, which my wife has reported. She says, it will not stop raining till I am released. Or start raining. Or something.’

He casts a glance at the window and he sees only a summer shower. In a moment the sun will scorch the moisture from the stones. ‘My wife tells her,’ Kingston says, ‘to leave off such foolish talk. She said to me, Master Kingston, shall I have justice? I said to her, madam, the poorest subject of the king has justice. But she just laughs,’ Kingston says. ‘And she orders her dinner. And she eats it with a good appetite. And she says verses. My wife cannot follow them. The queen says they are verses of Wyatt’s. And she says, Oh, Wyatt, Thomas Wyatt, when shall I see you here with me?’

At Whitehall he hears Wyatt’s voice and walks towards it, attendants wheeling after him; he has more attendants than ever he did, some of them people he has never seen before. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon big as a house: he is blocking Wyatt’s path, and they are yelling at one another. ‘What are you doing?’ he shouts, and Wyatt breaks off and says over his shoulder, ‘Making peace.’

He laughs. Brandon stumps away, grinning behind his vast beard. Wyatt says, ‘I have begged him, set aside your old enmity for me, or it will kill me, do you want that?’ He looks after the duke with disgust. ‘I suspect he does. This is his chance. He went to Henry long ago, blustering that he had suspicions of me with Anne.’

‘Yes, but if you recall, Henry kicked him back to the east country.’

‘Henry will listen now. He will find him easy to believe.’

He takes Wyatt by the arm. If he can move Charles Brandon, he can move anybody. ‘I am not going to dispute in a public place. I sent for you to come to my house, you fool, not to go raging about in public view and making people say, What, Wyatt, is he still at large?’

Wyatt puts a hand over his. He takes in a deep breath, trying to calm himself. ‘My father told me, get to the king, and stay with him day and night.’

‘That is not possible. The king is seeing no one. You must come to me at the Rolls House, but then –’

‘If I go to your house people will say I am arrested.’

He drops his voice. ‘No friend of mine will suffer.’

‘They are strange and sudden friends you have this month. Papist friends, Lady Mary’s people, Chapuys. You make common cause with them now, but what about afterwards? What will happen if they abandon you before you abandon them?’

‘Ah,’ he says equably, ‘so you think the whole house of Cromwell will come down? Trust me, will you? Well, you have no choice, really, have you?’

From Cromwell’s house, to the Tower: Richard Cromwell as escort, and the whole thing done so lightly, in such a spirit of friendliness, that you would think they were going out for a day’s hunting. ‘Beg the constable to do all honour to Master Wyatt,’ he tells Richard. And to Wyatt, ‘It is the only place you are safe. Once you are in the Tower no one can question you without my permission.’

Wyatt says, ‘If I go in I shall not come out. They want me sacrificed, your new friends.’

‘They will not want to pay the price,’ he says easily. ‘You know me, Wyatt. I know how much everyone has, I know what they can afford. And not only in cash. I have your enemies weighed and assessed. I know what they will pay and what they will baulk at, and believe me, the grief they will expend if they cross me in this matter, it will bankrupt them of tears.’

When Wyatt and Richard have gone on their way, he says to Call-Me-Risley, frowning: ‘Wyatt once said I was the cleverest man in England.’

‘He didn’t flatter,’ Call-Me says. ‘I learn much daily, from mere proximity.’

‘No, it is him. Wyatt. He leaves us all behind. He writes himself and then he disclaims himself. He jots a verse on some scrap of paper, and slips it to you, when you are at supper or praying in the chapel. Then he slides a paper to some other person, and it is the same verse, but a word is different. Then that person says to you, did you see what Wyatt wrote? You say yes, but you are talking of different things. Another time you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read. You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true? He says, it is poet’s truth. Besides, he claims, I am not free to write as I like. It is not the king, but metre that constrains me. And I would be plainer, he says, if I could: but I must keep to the rhyme.’

‘Someone should take his verses to the printer,’ Wriothesley says. ‘That would fix them.’

‘He would not consent to that. They are private communications.’

‘If I were Wyatt,’ Call-Me says, ‘I would have made sure no one misconstrued me. I would have stayed away from Caesar’s wife.’

‘That is the wise course.’ He smiles. ‘But it is not for him. It is for people like you and me.’

When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. We do not know for a fact that their plumage is like the plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks. They hardly visit men nowadays. Though in Rome he knew a man, a turnspit in the papal kitchens, who had come face to face with an angel in a passage dripping with chill, in a sunken store room of the Vatican where cardinals never tread; and people bought him drinks to make him talk about it. He said the angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass.

When the indictments come to his hand, he sees at once that, though the script is a clerk’s, the king has been at work. He can hear the king’s voice in every line: his outrage, jealousy, fear. It is not enough to say that she incited Norris to adultery with her in October 1533, nor Brereton in November the same year; Henry must imagine the ‘base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts’. It is not enough to cite her conduct with Francis Weston, in May 1534, or to allege that she lay down for Mark Smeaton, a man of low degree, in April last year; it is necessary to speak of the lovers’ burning resentment of each other, of the queen’s furious jealousy of any other woman they look at. It is not enough to say that she sinned with her own brother: one must imagine the kisses, presents, jewels that passed between them, and how they looked when she was ‘alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers’. It is more like a conversation with Lady Rochford, or any other scandal-loving woman, than it is like a document one carries into court; but all the same, it has its merits, it makes a story, and it puts into the heads of those who will hear it certain pictures that will not easily be got out again. He says, ‘You must add at every point, and to every offence, “and several days before and after”. Or a similar phrase, that makes it clear the offences are numerous, perhaps more numerous than even the parties themselves recollect. For in that way,’ he says, ‘if there is specific denial of one date, one place, it will not be enough to injure the whole.’

And look what Anne has said! According to this paper, she has confessed, ‘she would never love the king in her heart’.

Never has. Does not now. And never could.

He frowns over the documents and then gives them out to be picked over. Objections are raised. Is Wyatt to be added? No, by no means. If he must be tried, he thinks, if the king goes so far, then he will be pulled away from this contaminated crew, and we will start again with a blank sheet; with this trial, with these defendants, there is no way but one, no exit, no direction except the scaffold.

And if there are discrepancies, visible to those who keep accounts of where the court resides on this day or that? He says, Brereton once told me he could be in two places at once. Come to think of it, so did Weston. Anne’s lovers are phantom gentlemen, flitting by night with adulterous intent. They come and go by night, unchallenged. They skim over the river like midges, flicker against the dark, their doublets sewn with diamonds. The moon sees them, peering from her hood of bone, and Thames water reflects them, glimmering like fish, like pearls.

His new allies, the Courtenays and the Pole family, profess themselves unsurprised by the charges against Anne. The woman is a heretic and so is her brother. Heretics, it is well known, have no natural limits, no constraints, fear neither the law of the land nor the law of God. They see what they want and they take it. And those who (foolishly) have tolerated heretics, out of laziness or pity, then discover at last what their true nature is.

Henry Tudor will learn harsh lessons from this, the old families say. Perhaps Rome will stretch out a hand to him in his trouble? Perhaps, if he creeps on his knees, then after Anne is dead the Pope will forgive him, and take him back?

And I? he asks. Oh, well, you, Cromwell…his new masters look at him with various expressions of bemusement or disgust. ‘I shall be your prodigal son,’ he says, smiling. ‘I shall be the sheep that was lost.’

At Whitehall, little huddles of men, muttering, drawn into tight circles, their elbows pointing backwards as hands caress the daggers at their waist. And among lawyers a subfusc agitation, conferences in corners.

Rafe asks him, could the king’s freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

When he, Cromwell, arrives to see Thomas Wyatt in prison, the constable Kingston is anxious to assure him that his word has been obeyed, that Wyatt has been treated with all honour.

‘And the queen, how is she?’

‘Restless,’ Kingston says. He looks uneasy. ‘I am used to all sorts of prisoners, but I have never had one like this. One moment she says, I know I must die. Next moment, much contrary to that. She thinks the king will come in his barge and take her away. She thinks a mistake has been made, that there is a misapprehension. She thinks the King of France will intervene for her.’ The gaoler shakes his head.

He finds Thomas Wyatt playing dice against himself: the kind of time-wasting pursuit old Sir Henry Wyatt reprehends. ‘Who’s winning?’ he asks.

Wyatt looks up. ‘That trolling idiot, my worst self, plays that canting fool, my best self. You can guess who wins. Still, there is always the possibility it will come up different.’

‘Are you comfortable?’

‘In body or spirit?’

‘I only answer for bodies.’

‘Nothing makes you falter,’ Wyatt says. He says it with a reluctant admiration that is close to dread. But he, Cromwell, thinks, I did falter but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad. Wyatt did not see me walk away from Weston’s interrogation. Wyatt did not see me when Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart.

He rests his eyes on the prisoner, he takes his seat. He says softly, ‘I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.’ His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold. He says to Wyatt, ‘Any information you give me I will note, but I give you my word that I will destroy it once this thing is accomplished.’

‘Accomplished?’ Wyatt is querying his choice of word.

‘The king is informed his wife has betrayed him with various men, one her brother, one his closest friend, another a servant she says she hardly knows. The glass of truth has shattered, he says. So, yes, it would be an accomplishment to pick up the pieces.’

‘But you say he is informed, how is he informed? No one admits anything, except Mark. What if he is lying?’

‘When a man admits guilt we have to believe him. We cannot set ourselves to proving to him that he is wrong. Otherwise the law courts would never function.’

‘But what is the evidence?’ Wyatt persists.

He smiles. ‘The truth comes to Henry’s door, wearing a cloak and hood. He lets it in because he has a shrewd idea of what lies beneath, it is not a stranger who comes calling. Thomas, I think he has always known. He knows if she was not false to him in body she was so in words, and if not in deeds then in dreams. He thinks she never esteemed or loved him, when he laid the world at her feet. He thinks he never pleased or satisfied her and that when he lay next to her she imagined someone else.’

‘That is common,’ Wyatt said. ‘Is it not usual? That is how marriage works. I never knew it was an offence in the eyes of the law. God help us. Half England will be in gaol.’

‘You understand that there are the charges that are written down in an indictment. And then there are the other charges, those we don’t commit to paper.’

‘If feeling is a crime, then I admit…’

‘Admit nothing. Norris admitted. He admitted he loved her. If what someone wants from you is an admission, it is never in your interest to give it.’

‘What does Henry want? I am honestly perplexed. I cannot see my way through it.’

‘He changes his mind, day to day. He would like to rework the past. He would like never to have seen Anne. He would like to have seen her, but to have seen through her. Mostly he wishes her dead.’

‘Wishing is not doing it.’

‘It is, if you are Henry.’

‘As I understand the law, a queen’s adultery is no treason.’

‘No, but the man who violates her, he commits treason.’

‘You think they used force?’ Wyatt says drily.

‘No, it is just the legal term. It is a pretence, that allows us to think well of any disgraced queen. But as for her, she is a traitor too, she has said so out of her own mouth. To intend the king’s death, that is treason.’

‘But again,’ Wyatt says, ‘forgive my poor understanding, I thought Anne had said, “If he dies,” or some such words. So let me put a case to you. If I say “All men must die,” is that a forecast of the king’s death?’

‘It would be well not to put cases,’ he says pleasantly. ‘Thomas More was putting cases when he tipped into treason. Now let me come to the point with you. I may need your evidence against the queen. I will accept it in writing, I do not need it aired in open court. You once told me, when you visited my house, how Anne conducts herself with men: she says, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, no.”’ Wyatt nods; he recognises those words; he looks sorry he spoke them. ‘Now you may have to transpose one word of that testimony. Yes, yes, yes, no, yes.’

Wyatt does not answer. The silence extends, settles around them: a drowsy silence, as elsewhere leaves unfurl, may blossoms on the trees, water tinkles into fountains, young people laugh in gardens. At last Wyatt speaks, his voice strained: ‘It was not testimony.’

‘What was it then?’ He leans forward. ‘You know I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations. I cannot split myself into two, one your friend and the other the king’s servant. So you must tell me: will you write down your thoughts, and if you are requested, will you say one word?’ He sits back. ‘And if you can reassure me on this point, I will write to your father, to reassure him in turn. To tell him you will come out of this alive.’ He pauses. ‘May I do so?’

Wyatt nods. The smallest possible gesture, a nod to the future.

‘Good. Afterwards, for your trouble, to compensate you for this detention, I will arrange for you to have a sum of money.’

‘I don’t want it.’ Wyatt turns his face away, deliberately: like a child.

‘Believe me, you do. You are still trailing debts from your time in Italy. Your creditors come to me.’

‘I’m not your brother. You’re not my keeper.’

He looks about him. ‘I am, if you think about it.’

Wyatt says, ‘I hear Henry wants an annulment too. To kill her and be divorced from her, all in one day. That is how she is, you see. Everything is ruled by extremes. She would not be his mistress, she must be queen of England; so there is breaking of faith and making of laws, so the country is set in an uproar. If he had such trouble to get her, what must it cost him to be rid? Even after she is dead, he had better make sure to nail her down.’

He says curiously, ‘Have you no tenderness left for her?’

‘She has exhausted it,’ Wyatt says shortly. ‘Or perhaps I never had any, I do not know my own mind, you know it. I dare say men have felt many things for Anne, but no one except Henry has felt tenderness. Now he thinks he’s been taken for a fool.’

He stands up. ‘I shall write some comfortable words to your father. I will explain you must stay here a little space, it is safest. But first I must…we thought Henry had dropped the annulment, but now, as you say, he revives it, so I must…’

Wyatt says, as if relishing his discomfort, ‘You’ll have to go and see Harry Percy, won’t you?’

It is now almost four years since, with Call-Me-Risley at his heels, he had confronted Harry Percy at a low inn called Mark and the Lion, and made him understand certain truths about life: the paramount truth being, that he was not, whatever he thought, married to Anne Boleyn. On that day he had slammed his hand on the table and told the young man that if he did not get himself out of the way of the king, he would be destroyed: that he, Thomas Cromwell, would let his creditors loose to destroy him, and rip away his earldom and his lands. He had slammed his hand on the table and told him that, further, if he did not forget Anne Boleyn and any claim he made on her, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk would find out where he hid and bite his bollocks off.

Since then, he has done much business with the earl, who is now a sick and broken young man, heavily in debt, his hold on his affairs slipping away from him day by day. In fact, the judgement is almost accomplished, the judgement he had invoked: except that the earl still has his bollocks, as far as anybody knows. After their talk at Mark and the Lion the earl, who had been drinking for some days, had caused his servants to sponge his clothes, wiping away trails of vomit: sour-smelling, rawly shaven, trembling and green with nausea, he had presented himself before the king’s council, and obliged him, Thomas Cromwell, by rewriting the history of his infatuation: by forswearing any claim on Anne Boleyn; by affirming that no contract of marriage had ever existed between them; that on his honour as a nobleman he had never tupped her, and that she was completely free for the king’s hands, heart and marriage bed. On which, he had taken his Bible oath, the book held by old Warham, who was archbishop before Thomas Cranmer: on which, he had received the Holy Sacrament, with Henry’s eyes boring into his back.

Now he, Cromwell, rides over to meet the earl at his country house in Stoke Newington, which lies north and east of the city on the Cambridge road. Percy’s servants take their horses, but rather than entering at once he stands back from the house to take a view of the roof and chimneys. ‘Fifty pounds spent before next winter would be a good investment,’ he says to Thomas Wriothesley. ‘Not counting the labour.’ If he had a ladder he could go up and look at the state of the leads. But that would perhaps not be consonant with his dignity. Master Secretary can do anything he likes, but the Master of the Rolls has to think of his ancient office and what is due to it. Whether, as the king’s Vicegerent in Spirituals, he is allowed to climb about on roofs…who knows? The office is too new and untried. He grins. Certainly, it would be an affront to the dignity of Master Wriothesley, if he were asked to foot the ladder. ‘I’m thinking about my investment,’ he tells Wriothesley. ‘Mine and the king’s.’

The earl owes him considerable sums, but he owes the king ten thousand pounds. After Harry Percy is dead, his earldom will be swallowed by the Crown: so he examines the earl too, to judge how sound he is. He is jaundiced, hollow-cheeked, looks older than his age, which is some thirty-four, thirty-five; and that sour smell that hangs in the air, it takes him back to Kimbolton, to the old queen shut up in her apartments: the fusty, unaired room like a gaol, and the bowl of vomit that passed him, in the hands of one of her girls. He says without much hope, ‘You haven’t been sick because of my visit?’

The earl looks at him from a sunken eye. ‘No. They say it is my liver. No, on the whole, Cromwell, you have dealt very reasonably with me, I must say. Considering –’

‘Considering what I threatened you with.’ He shakes his head, rueful. ‘Oh, my lord. Today I stand before you a poor suitor. You will never guess my errand.’

‘I think I would.’

‘I put it to you, my lord, that you are married to Anne Boleyn.’


‘I put it to you that in or about the year 1523, you made a secret contract of marriage with her, and that therefore her so-called marriage with the king is null.’

‘No.’ From somewhere, the earl finds a spark of his ancestral spirit, that border fire which burns in the north parts of the kingdom, and roasts any Scot in its path. ‘You made me swear, Cromwell. You came to me where I was drinking at Mark and the Lion, and you threatened me. I was dragged before the council and I was made to swear on the Bible that I had no contract with Anne. I was made to go with the king and take communion. You saw me, you heard me. How can I take it back now? Are you saying I committed perjury?’

The earl is on his feet. He remains seated. He does not mean any discourtesy; rather he thinks that, if he stands up, he might fetch the earl a slap, and he has never to his knowledge assaulted a sick man. ‘Not perjury,’ he says amicably. ‘I put it to you that on that occasion, your memory failed.’

‘I was married to Anne, but had forgotten?’

He sits back and considers his adversary. ‘You have always been a drinker, my lord, which is how, I believe, you are reduced to your present condition. On the day in question I found you, as you say, at a tavern. Is it possible that when you came before the council, you were still drunk? And therefore you were confused about what you were swearing?’

‘I was sober.’

‘Your head ached. You were nauseous. You were afraid you might be sick on the reverend shoes of Archbishop Warham. The possibility so perturbed you that you could think of nothing else. You were not attentive to the questions put to you. That was hardly your fault.’

‘But,’ the earl says, ‘I was attentive.’

‘Any councillor would understand your plight. We have all been in drink, one time or another.’

‘Upon my soul, I was attentive.’

‘Then consider another possibility. Perhaps there was some slackness in the taking of the oath. Some irregularity. The old archbishop, he was ill himself that day. I remember how his hands trembled as he held the holy book.’

‘He was palsied. It is common in age. But he was competent.’

‘If there was some defect in the procedure, your conscience should not trouble you, if you were now to repudiate your oath. Perhaps, you know, it was not even a Bible?’

‘It was bound like a Bible,’ the earl says.

‘I have a book on accountancy that is often mistaken for a Bible.’

‘Especially by you.’

He grins. The earl is not entirely addle-witted, not yet.

‘And what about the sacred host?’ Percy says. ‘I took the sacrament to seal my oath, and was that not the very body of God?’

He is silent. I could give you an argument about that, he thinks, but I will not give you an opening to call me a heretic.

‘I will not do it,’ Percy says. ‘And I cannot see why I should. All I hear is, that Henry means to kill her. Isn’t it enough for her to be dead? After she is dead what does it matter who she was contracted to?’

‘It does, in the one way. He is suspicious about the child Anne had. But he does not want to press inquiries into who is her father.’

‘Elizabeth? I have seen the thing,’ Percy says. ‘She’s his. I can tell you that much.’

‘But if she were…even if she were, he now thinks to put her out of the succession, so if he was never married to her mother – well, at a stroke the matter is clear. The way is open for the children of his next wife.’

The earl nods. ‘I see that.’

‘So if you want to help Anne, this is your last chance.’

‘How will it help her, to have her marriage annulled and her child bastardised?’

‘It might save her life. If Henry’s temper cools.’

‘You will make sure to keep it hot. You will heap on the fuel and apply the bellows, will you not?’

He shrugs. ‘It is nothing to me. I do not hate the queen, I leave that to others. So, if you had ever any regard for her –’

‘I cannot help her any more. I can only help myself. God knows the truth. You made me a liar as I stood before God. Now you want to make me a fool as I stand before men. You must find another way, Master Secretary.’

‘I will do that,’ he says easily. He stands up. ‘I am sorry you lose a chance to please the king.’ At the door, he turns back. ‘You are stubborn,’ he says, ‘because you are weak.’

Harry Percy looks up at him. ‘I am worse than weak, Cromwell. I am dying.’

‘You’ll last until the trial, won’t you? I shall put you on the panel of peers. If you are not Anne’s husband, you are clear to be her judge. The court has need of wise and experienced men like yourself.’

Harry Percy cries out after him, but he leaves the hall with long strides, and gives the gentlemen outside the door a shake of the head. ‘Well,’ Master Wriothesley says, ‘I made sure you would bounce him into sense.’

‘Sense has fled.’

‘You look gloomy, sir.’

‘Do I, Call-Me? I can’t think why.’

‘We can still free the king. My lord archbishop will see a way. Even if we have to bring Mary Boleyn into it, and say the marriage was unlawful through affinity.’

‘Our difficulty is, in the case of Mary Boleyn, the king was apprised of the facts. He may not have known if Anne was secretly married. But he always knew she was Mary’s sister.’

‘Have you ever done anything like that?’ Master Wriothesley asks thoughtfully. ‘Two sisters?’

‘Is that the kind of question that absorbs you at this time?’

‘Only one wonders. How it would be. They say Mary Boleyn was a great whore when she was at the French court. Do you think King Francis had them both?’

He looks at Wriothesley with new respect. ‘There is an angle I might explore. Now…because you have been a good boy and not struck out at Harry Percy or called him names, but waited patiently outside the door as you were bade, I’ll tell you something you will like to know. Once, when she found herself between patrons, Mary Boleyn asked me to marry her.’

Master Wriothesley gapes at him. He follows, uttering broken syllables. What? When? Why? Only when they are on horseback does he speak to the purpose. ‘God strike me. You would have been the king’s brother-in-law.’

‘But not for much longer,’ he says.

The day is breezy and fine. They make good speed back to London. In other days, in other company, he would have enjoyed the journey.

But what company would that be, he wonders, dismounting at Whitehall. Bess Seymour’s? ‘Master Wriothesley,’ he asks, ‘can you read my mind?’

‘No,’ says Call-Me. He looks baffled, and somehow affronted.

‘Do you think a bishop could read my mind?’

‘No, sir.’

He nods. ‘Just as well.’

The Imperial ambassador comes to see him, wearing his Christmas hat. ‘Especially for you, Thomas,’ he says, ‘because I know it makes you happy.’ He sits down, signals to the servant for wine. The servant is Christophe. ‘Do you use this ruffian for every purpose?’ Chapuys asks. ‘Is it not he who tortured the boy Mark?’

‘Firstly, Mark is not a boy, he is only immature. Secondly, no one tortured him.’ At least, he says, ‘not in my sight or hearing, not at my command nor suggestion, nor with my permission, expressed or implied’.

‘I feel you preparing yourself for the courtroom,’ Chapuys says. ‘A knotted rope, was it not? Tightened around the brow? So you threatened to pop out his eyes?’

He is angry. ‘This may be what they do where you were brought up. I have never heard of such a practice.’

‘So it was the rack instead?’

‘You can see him at his trial. You can judge for yourself whether he is damaged. I have seen men who have been racked. Not here. Abroad, I have seen it. They have to be carried in a chair. Mark is as nimble as in his dancing days.’

‘If you say so.’ Chapuys seems pleased to have provoked him. ‘And how is your heretic queen now?’

‘Brave as a lion. You will be sorry to learn.’

‘And proud, but she will be humbled. She is no lion, and no more than one of your London cats that sing on rooftops.’

He thinks of a black cat he used to have. Marlinspike. After some years of fighting and scavenging he ran off, as cats do, to make his career elsewhere. Chapuys says, ‘As you know, a number of ladies and gentlemen of the court have ridden up to the Princess Mary, to assure her of their services in the time which is at hand. I thought you might go yourself.’

God damn it, he thinks, I am already fully employed, and more than fully; it is no small enterprise, to bring down a queen of England. He says, ‘I trust the princess will forgive my absence at this time. It is to do her good.’

‘You have no trouble calling her “the princess” now,’ Chapuys observes. ‘She will be reinstated, of course, as Henry’s heir.’ He waits. ‘She expects, all her loyal supporters expect, the Emperor himself expects…’

‘Hope is a great virtue. But,’ he adds, ‘I hope you will warn her not to receive any persons without permission from the king. Or from me.’

‘She cannot stop them resorting to her. All her old household. They flock. It will be a new world, Thomas.’

‘The king will be eager, is eager, for a reconciliation with her. He is a good father.’

‘A pity he has not had more opportunity to show it.’

‘Eustache…’ He pauses, waves Christophe away. ‘I know you have never married, but have you no children? Do not look so startled. I am curious about your life. We must come to know each other better.’

The ambassador bristles at the change of topic. ‘I do not meddle with women. Not like you.’

‘I would not turn away a child. No one ever makes a claim on me. If they did, I would meet it.’

‘The ladies do not wish to prolong the encounter,’ Chapuys suggests.

That makes him laugh. ‘You may be right. Come, my good friend, let us have our supper.’

‘I look forward to many more such convivial evenings,’ the ambassador says, beaming. ‘Once the concubine is dead, and England is at ease.’

* * *

The men in the Tower, though they lament their likely fate, do not complain as sorely as the king does. By day he walks around like an illustration from the Book of Job. By night he glides down the river, accompanied by musicians, to visit Jane.

For all the beauties of Nicholas Carew’s house, it is eight miles from the Thames and so not convenient for evening journeys, even in these light nights of early summer; the king wants to stay with Jane till darkness falls. So the queen-in-waiting has come up to London, to be housed by her supporters and friends. Crowds surge about from one rumoured spot to another, trying to catch a glimpse of her, necks craning, eyes popping, the curious blocking gateways and hoisting each other up on walls.

Her brothers throw out largesse to the Londoners, in the hope of winning their voices for her. The word is put about that she is an English gentlewoman, one of our own; unlike Anne Boleyn, whom many believe to be French. But the crowds are puzzled, even rancorous: ought not the king to marry a great princess, like Katherine, from a faraway land?

Bess Seymour tells him, ‘Jane is squirrelling away money in a locked chest, in case the king changes his mind.’

‘So should we all. A locked chest is a good thing to have.’

‘She keeps the key in her bosom,’ Bess says.

‘No one is likely to come at it there.’

Bess gives him a merry look, out of the tail of her eye.

By now, the news of Anne’s arrest is beginning to ripple through Europe, and though Bess does not know it, offers for Henry are coming in hour by hour. The Emperor suggests that the king might like his niece the Infanta of Portugal, who would come with 400,000 ducats; and the Portuguese Prince Dom Luis could marry the Princess Mary. Or if the king does not want the Infanta, what would he say to the dowager Duchess of Milan, a very pretty young widow, who would bring him a good sum also?

These are days of omens and portents for those who value such things and can read them. The malign stories have come out of the books and are enacting themselves. A queen is locked in a tower, accused of incest. The commonwealth, nature herself, is perturbed. Ghosts are glimpsed in doorways, standing by windows, against walls, hoping to overhear the secrets of the living. A bell rings of itself, touched by no human hand. There is a burst of speech where no one is present, a hissing in the air like the sound of a hot iron plunged into water. Sober citizens are moved to shout in church. A woman pushes through the crowd at his gate, grabbing at the bridle of his horse. Before the guards force her away, she shouts at him, ‘God help us, Cromwell, what a man the king is! How many wives does he mean to have?’

For once, Jane Seymour has a blush of colour in her cheeks; or perhaps it is reflected from her gown, the soft clear rose of quince jelly.

Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial. Kingston fetches them by barge; it is 12 May, a Friday. They are brought in by armed guards through a fulminating crowd, shouting the odds. The gamblers believe that Weston will get off; this is his family’s campaign at work. But for the others, the odds are even that they live or die. For Mark Smeaton, who has admitted everything, no wagers are being taken; but a book is open on whether he will be hanged, beheaded, boiled or burned, or subject to some novel penalty of the king’s invention.

They do not understand the law, he says to Riche, looking down from a window at the scenes below. There is only one penalty for high treason: for a man, to be hanged, cut down alive and eviscerated, or for a woman, to be burned. The king may vary the sentence to decapitation; only poisoners are boiled alive. The court can give just the one sentence in this case, and it will be transmitted from the court to the crowds, and misunderstood, so that those who have won will be gnashing their teeth, and those who have lost will be demanding their money, and there will be fights and torn clothes and smashed heads, and blood on the ground while the accused are still safe in the courtroom, and days away from death.

They will not hear the charges till they hear them in court and, as is usual in treason trials, they will have no legal representation. But they will have a chance to speak, and represent themselves, and they can call witnesses: if anybody will stand up for them. Men have been tried for treason, these last few years, and walked free, but these men know they will not escape. They have to think of their families left behind; they want the king to be good to them and that alone should still any protest, prevent any strident pleas of innocence. The court must be allowed to work unimpeded. In return for their cooperation it is understood, more or less understood, that the king will grant them the mercy of death by the axe, which will not add to their shame; though there are murmurs among the jurors that Smeaton will hang because, being a man of low birth, he has no honour to protect.

Norfolk presides. When the prisoners are brought in, the three gentlemen draw away from Mark; they want to show him their scorn, and how they are better than he. But this brings them into proximity with each other, more than they will allow; they will not look at each other, he notices, they shuffle to create as much space as they can, so they seem to be shrinking from each other, twitching at coats and sleeves. Only Mark will declare his guilt. He has been kept in irons in case he tries to destroy himself: surely a charity, as he would bungle it. So he arrives before the court intact, as promised, no marks of injury, but unable to keep himself from tears. He pleads for mercy. The other defendants are succinct but respectful to the court: three heroes of the tilting ground who see, bearing down on them, the indefeasible opponent, the King of England himself. There are challenges they could make, but the charges, their dates and their details, go by them so fast. They can win a point, if they insist; but it only slows the inevitable, and they know it. When they go in, the guards stand with halberds reversed; but when they come out, convicted, the axe edge is turned to them. They push through the uproar, dead men: hustled through the lines of halberdiers to the river, and back to their temporary home, their anteroom, to write their last letters and make spiritual preparations. All have expressed contrition, though none but Mark has said for what.

A cool afternoon: and once the crowds have drifted off, and the court broken up, he finds himself sitting by an open window with the clerks bundling the records, and he watches it done, and then says, I will go home now. I am going to my city house, to Austin Friars, send the papers to Chancery Lane. He is the overlord of the spaces and the silences, the gaps and the erasures, what is missed or misconstrued or simply mistranslated, as the news slips from English to French and perhaps via Latin to Castilian and the Italian tongues, and through Flanders to the Emperor’s eastern territories, over the borders of the German principalities and out to Bohemia and Hungary and the snowy realms beyond, by merchantmen under sail to Greece and the Levant; to India, where they have never heard of Anne Boleyn, let alone her lovers and her brother; along the silk routes to China where they have never heard of Henry the eighth of that name, or any other Henry, and even the existence of England is to them a dark myth, a place where men have their mouths in their bellies and women can fly, or cats rule the commonwealth and men crouch at mouse holes to catch their dinner. In the hall at Austin Friars he stands for a moment before the great image of Solomon and Sheba; the tapestry belonged to the cardinal once, but the king took it, and then, after Wolsey was dead, and he, Cromwell, had risen in favour, the king had made him a gift of it, as if embarrassed, as if slipping back to its true owner something that should never have been away. The king had seen him look with longing, and more than once, at Sheba’s face, not because he covets a queen but because she takes him back to his past, to a woman whom by accident she resembles: Anselma, an Antwerp widow, whom he might have married, he often thinks, if he had not made up his mind suddenly to take himself off back to England and pick up with his own people. In those days he did things suddenly: not without calculation, not without care, but once his mind was made up he was swift to move. And he is still the same man. As his opponents will find.

‘Gregory?’ His son is still in his riding coat, dusty from the road. He hugs him. ‘Let me look at you. Why are you here?’

‘You did not say I must not come,’ Gregory explains. ‘You did not absolutely forbid it. Besides, I have learned the art of public speaking now. Do you want to hear me make a speech?’

‘Yes. But not now. You ought not to ride about the country with just one attendant or two. There are people who would hurt you, because you are known to be my son.’

‘How am I known?’ Gregory says. ‘How would they know that?’ Doors open, there are feet on the stairs, there are questioning faces crowding the hall; the news from the courtroom has preceded him. Yes, he confirms, they are all guilty, all condemned, whether they will go to Tyburn I do not know, but I will move the king to grant them the swifter end; yes, Mark too, because when he was under my roof I offered him mercy, and this is all the mercy I can deliver.

‘We heard they are all in debt, sir,’ says his clerk Thomas Avery, who does the accounts.

‘We heard there were perilous crowds, sir,’ says one of his watchmen.

Thurston the cook comes out, looking floury: ‘Thurston has heard there were pies on sale,’ says the jester Anthony. ‘And I, sir? I hear that your new comedy was very well-received. And everybody laughed except the dying.’

Gregory says, ‘But there could still be reprieves?’

‘Undoubtedly.’ He does not feel like adding anything. Someone has given him a drink of ale; he wipes his mouth.

‘I remember when we were at Wolf Hall,’ Gregory says, ‘and Weston spoke so boldly to you, and so me and Rafe, we caught him in our magic net and dropped him from a height. But we would not really have killed him.’

‘The king is wreaking his pleasure, and so many fine gentlemen will be spoiled.’ He speaks for the household to hear. ‘When your acquaintances tell you, as they will, that it is I who have condemned these men, tell them that it is the king, and a court of law, and that all proper formalities have been observed, and no one has been hurt bodily in pursuit of the truth, whatever the word is in the city. And you will not believe it, please, if ill-informed persons tell you these men are dying because I have a grudge against them. It is beyond grudge. And I could not save them if I tried.’

‘But Master Wyatt will not die?’ Thomas Avery asks. There is a murmur; Wyatt is a favourite in his household, for his open-handed ways and his courtesy.

‘I must go in now. I must read the letters from abroad. Thomas Wyatt…well, let us say I have advised him. I think we shall soon see him here among us, but bear in mind that nothing is certain, the will of the king…No. Enough.’

He breaks off, Gregory trails him. ‘Are they really guilty?’ he asks, the moment they are alone. ‘Why so many men? Would it not have stood better with the king’s honour if he named only one?’

He says wryly, ‘That would distinguish him too much, the gentleman in question.’

‘Oh, you mean that people would say, Harry Norris has a bigger cock than the king, and he knows what to do with it?’

‘What a way with words you have indeed. The king is inclined to take it patiently, and where another man would strive to be secret, he knows he cannot be, because he is not a private man. He believes, or at least he wishes to show, that the queen has been indiscriminate, that she is impulsive, that her nature is bad and she cannot control it. And now that so many men are found to have erred with her, any possible defence is stripped away, do you see? That is why they have been tried first. As they are guilty, she must be.’

Gregory nods. He seems to understand, but perhaps seeming is as far as it goes. When Gregory says, ‘Are they guilty?’ he means, ‘Did they do it?’ But when he says, ‘Are they guilty?’ he means, ‘Did the court find them so?’ The lawyer’s world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted. This was not one: the phrases jostled and frotted, nudged and spilled, ugly in content and ugly in form. The design against Anne is unhallowed in its gestation, untimely in its delivery, a mass of tissue born shapeless; it waited to be licked into shape as a bear cub is licked by its mother. You nourished it, but you did not know what you fed: who would have thought of Mark confessing, or of Anne acting in every respect like an oppressed and guilty woman with a weight of sin upon her? It is as the men said today in court: we are guilty of all sorts of charges, we have all sinned, we all are riddled and rotten with offences and, even by the light of church and gospel, we may not know what they are. Word has come from the Vatican, where they are specialists in sin, that any offers of friendship, any gesture of reconciliation from King Henry, would be viewed kindly at this difficult time; because, whoever else is surprised, they are not surprised in Rome about the turn events have taken. In Rome, of course, it would be unremarkable: adultery, incest, one merely shrugs. When he was at the Vatican, in Cardinal Bainbridge’s day, he quickly saw that no one in the papal court grasped what was happening, ever; and least of all the Pope. Intrigue feeds on itself; conspiracies have neither mother nor father, and yet they thrive: the only thing to know is that no one knows anything.

Though in Rome, he thinks, there is little pretence at process of law. In the prisons, when an offender is forgotten and starves, or when he is beaten to death by his gaolers, they just stuff the body into a sack then roll and kick it into the river, where it joins the Tiber’s general effluent.

He looks up. Gregory has been sitting quietly, respectful of his thoughts. But now he says, ‘When will they die?’

‘It cannot be tomorrow, they need time to settle their business. And the queen will be tried in the Tower on Monday, so it must be after that, Kingston cannot…the court will sit in public, you see, the Tower will be awash with people…’ He pictures an unseemly scramble, the condemned men having to fight to the scaffold through the incoming hordes who want to see a queen on trial.

‘But will you be there to watch?’ Gregory insists. ‘When it does occur? I could attend them at the last to offer them my prayers, but I could not do it unless you were there. I might fall down on the ground.’

He nods. It is good to be realistic in these matters. He has heard street brawlers in his youth boast of their stomach, then blench at a cut finger, and anyway being at an execution is not like being in a fight: there is fear, and fear is contagious, whereas in a scrap there is no time for fear, and not until it’s over do your legs begin to shake. ‘If I am not there, Richard will be. It is a kindly thought and though it would give you pain I feel it shows respect.’ He cannot guess the shape of the next week. ‘It depends…the annulment must go through, so it rests with the queen, on how she helps us, will she give her assent.’ He is thinking aloud: ‘It may be I am at Lambeth with Cranmer. And please, my dear son, don’t ask me why there has to be an annulment. Just know it’s what the king wants.’

He finds he cannot think of the dying men at all. Into his mind instead strays the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the veil of rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe. The cardinal when he fell had no persecutor more relentless than Thomas More. Yet, he thinks, I did not hate him. I exercised my skills to the utmost to persuade him to reconcile with the king. And I thought I would win him, I really thought I would, for he was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for. In the end he was his own murderer. He wrote and wrote and he talked and talked, then suddenly at a stroke he cancelled himself. If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man.

The queen wears scarlet and black, and instead of a hood a jaunty cap, with feathers of black and white sweeping across its brim. Remember those plumes, he tells himself; this will be the last time, or almost so. How did she look, the women will ask. He will be able to say she looked pale, but unafraid. How can it be for her, to enter that great chamber and to stand before the peers of England, all men and none of them desiring her? She is tainted now, she is dead meat, and instead of coveting her – bosom, hair, eyes – their gaze slides away. Only Uncle Norfolk glares at her fiercely: as if her head were not Medusa’s head.

In the centre of the great hall at the Tower they have built a platform with benches for the judges and peers, and there are some benches too in the side arcades, but the most part of the spectators will be standing, pushing in behind each other till the guards say ‘No more,’ and block the doorways with staves. Even then they push, and the noise rises as those who have been let through jostle in the well of the court, till Norfolk, his white baton of office in his hand, calls for silence, and from the ferocious expression on his face, the most ignorant person in that throng knows he means it.

Here is the Lord Chancellor seated by the duke, to supply him with the best legal advice in the kingdom. Here is the Earl of Worcester, whose wife, you might say, started all this; and the earl gives him a filthy look, he does not know why. Here is Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who has hated Anne since he set eyes on her and has made it plain to the king’s face. Here is the Earl of Arundel, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Westmorland: among them he moves softly, plain Thomas Cromwell, a greeting here and a word there, spreading reassurance: the Crown’s case is in order, no upsets are expected or will be tolerated, we shall all be home for supper and sleep safely in our own beds tonight. Lord Sandys, Lord Audley, Lord Clinton and many lords more, each pricked off on a list as they take their seats: Lord Morley, George Boleyn’s father-in-law, who reaches for his hand and says, please, Thomas Cromwell, as you love me, let not this sordid business rebound on my poor little daughter Jane.

She was not so much your poor little daughter, he thinks, when you married her off without asking her; but it is common, you cannot blame him as a father, for as the king once said to him ruefully, it is only very poor men and women who are free to choose who they love. He clasps Lord Morley’s hand in return, and wishes him courage, and bids him take his seat, for the prisoner is among us and the court prepared.

He bows to the foreign ambassadors; but where is Chapuys? Word is passed forward, he is suffering from a quartan fever: word is passed back, I am sorry to hear that, let him send to my house for anything that might make him more comfortable. Say his fever is up today, day one: its tide ebbing tomorrow, by Wednesday he is on his feet but shaky, but by Thursday night he will be down again, as it shakes him in its grip.

The Attorney General reads the indictment, and it takes some time: crimes under statute, crimes under God. As he gets to his feet to prosecute he is thinking, the king expects a verdict by mid-afternoon; and glancing across the court he sees Francis Bryan, still in his outdoor coat, ready to get on the river with word to the Seymours. Steady, Francis, he thinks, this may take some time, it may get hot in here.

The substance of the case is the work of an hour or two, but when there are ninety-five names to be verified, of the justices and the peers, then the mere shuffling and the throat-clearing, the nose-blowing, the adjustment of robes and the settling of belt sashes – all those distracting rituals that some men need before they speak in public – with all that, it is clear the day will wear on; the queen herself is a still presence, listening intently from her chair as the list of her crimes is read out, the dizzying catalogue of times, dates, places, of men, their members, their tongues: into the mouth, out of the mouth, into divers crannies of the body, at Hampton Court and Richmond Palace, at Greenwich and Westminster, in Middlesex and in Kent; and then the loose words and taunts, the jealous quarrels and twisted intentions, the declaration, by the queen, that when her husband is dead, she will choose some one of them to be her husband, but she cannot yet say which. ‘Did you say that?’ She shakes her head. ‘You must answer aloud.’

Icy little voice: ‘No.’

It is all she will say, no, no and no: and once she answers ‘Yes,’ when she is asked if she has given money to Weston, and she hesitates and admits it; and there is a whoop from the crowd, and Norfolk stops proceedings and threatens he will have them all arrested if they do not keep silence. In any well-ordered country, Suffolk said yesterday, the trial of a noblewoman would be conducted in seemly privacy; he had rolled his eyes and said, but my lord, this is England.

Norfolk has obtained quiet, a rustling calm punctuated by coughs and whispers; he is ready for the prosecution to resume, and says, ‘Very well, go on, er – you.’ Not for the first time, he is baffled by having to speak to a common man, who is not an ostler or a carter, but a minister of the king: the Lord Chancellor leans forward and whispers, reminding him perhaps that the prosecutor is Master of the Rolls. ‘Carry on, Your Mastership,’ he says, more politely. ‘Please do proceed.’

She denies treason, there is the point: she never raises her voice, but she disdains to enlarge, to excuse, extenuate: to mitigate. And there is no one to do it for her. He remembers what Wyatt’s old father had once told him, how a dying lioness can maul you, flash out with her claw and scar you for life. But he feels no threat, no tension, nothing at all. He is a good speaker, known for eloquence, style and audibility, but today he has no interest in whether he is heard, not beyond the judges, the accused, as whatever the populace hear they will misconstrue: and so his voice seems to fade to a drowsy murmur in the room, the voice of a country priest droning through his prayers, no louder than a fly buzzing in a corner, knocking against glass; out of the corner of his eye he sees the Attorney General stifle a yawn, and he thinks, I have done what I thought I could never achieve, I have taken adultery, incest, conspiracy and treason, and I have made them routine. We do not need any false excitement. After all, it is a law court, not the Roman circus.

The verdicts drag in: it is a lengthy business; the court implores brevity, no speeches please, one word will suffice: ninety-five vote guilty, and not one nay-sayer. When Norfolk begins to read the sentence, the roar rises again, and one can feel the pressure of the people outside trying to get in, so it seems the hall gently rocks, like a boat at its mooring. ‘Her own uncle!’ someone wails, and the duke bangs his fist on his table and says he will do slaughter. That produces some quiet; the hush allows him to conclude, ‘…thy judgement is this: Thou shalt be burned here, within the Tower, or else to have thy head smitten off, as the king’s pleasure shall be further known –’

There is a yelp from one of the justices. The man is leaning forward, whispering furiously; Norfolk looks irate; the lawyers are going into a huddle, the peers crane forward to find out what is the delay. He strolls over. Norfolk says, ‘These fellows tell me I have not done it right, I cannot say burning or beheading, I have to say one, and they say it must be burning, that is how a woman suffers when she is a traitor.’

‘My lord Norfolk has his instructions from the king.’ He means to crush objection and he does. ‘The phrasing is the king’s pleasure and moreover, do not tell me what can be done and what cannot, we have never tried a queen before.’

‘We’re just making it up as we go,’ says the Lord Chancellor amiably.

‘Finish what you were saying,’ he tells Norfolk. He steps back.

‘I think I have done,’ Norfolk says, scratching his nose. ‘…head smitten off, as the king’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.’

The duke drops his voice and concludes at conversational pitch; so the queen never hears the end of her sentence. She has the gist, though. He watches her rise from her chair, still composed, and he thinks, she doesn’t believe it; why doesn’t she believe it? He looks across to where Francis Bryan was hovering, but the messenger has already gone.

Rochford’s trial has now to go forward; they must get Anne out, before her brother comes in. The solemnity of the occasion has dissipated. The more elderly members of the court have to totter out to piss, and the younger to stretch their legs and have a gossip, and collect the latest odds on an acquittal for George. The betting runs in his favour, though his face, as he is brought in, shows he is not deceived. To those who insist he will be acquitted, he, Cromwell has said, ‘If Lord Rochford can satisfy the court, he will be let go. Let us see what defence he will make.’

He has only one real fear: that Rochford is not vulnerable to the same pressure as the other men, because he is not leaving behind anyone he cares for. His wife has betrayed him, his father deserted him, and his uncle will preside over the court that tries him. He thinks George will speak with eloquence and spirit, and he is correct. When the charges are read to him, he asks that they be put one by one, clause by clause: ‘For what is your worldly time, gentlemen, against God’s assurance of eternity?’ There are smiles: admiration for his suavity. Boleyn addresses him, Cromwell, directly. ‘Put them to me one by one. The times, the places. I will confound you.’

But the contest is not even. He has his papers, and if it comes to it, he can lay them on the table and make his case without them; he has his trained memory, he has his accustomed self-possession, his courtroom voice that places no strain on his throat, his urbanity of manner that places no strain on his emotions; and if George thinks he will falter, reading out the details of caresses administered and received, then George does not know the place he comes from: the times, the manners, that have formed Master Secretary. Soon enough, Lord Rochford will begin to sound like a raw, tearful boy; he is fighting for his life, and thus unequal to a man who seems so indifferent to the outcome; let the court acquit if it will, there will be another court, or a process, more informal, that will end with George a broken corpse. He thinks, too, that soon young Boleyn will lose his temper, that he will show his contempt for Henry, and then it will all be up with him. He hands Rochford a paper: ‘Certain words are written here, which the queen is said to have spoken to you, and you in your turn passed them on. You need not read them aloud. Just tell the court, do you recognise those words?’

George smiles in disdain. Relishing the moment, he smirks: he takes a breath; he reads the words aloud. ‘The king cannot copulate with a woman, he has neither skill nor vigour.’

He has read it because he thinks the crowd will like it. And so they do, though the laughter is shocked, incredulous. But from his judges – and it is they who matter – there is an audible hiss of deprecation. George looks up. He throws out his hands. ‘These are not my words. I do not own them.’

But he owns them now. In one moment of bravado, to get the applause of the crowd, he has impugned the succession, derogated the king’s heirs: even though he was cautioned not to do it. He, Cromwell, nods. ‘We have heard that you spread rumours that the Princess Elizabeth is not the king’s child. It seems you do. You have spread them even in this court.’

George is silent.

He shrugs and turns away. It is hard on George that he cannot even mention the charges against him without becoming guilty of them. As prosecutor, he would rather it had gone unmentioned, the king’s difficulty; yet it is no more of a shame to Henry to have it declared in court than have it said in the street, and in taverns where they are singing the ballad of King Littleprick and his wife the witch. In such circumstances, the man blames the woman, as often as not. Something she has done, something she has said, the black look she gave him when he faltered, the derisive expression on her face. Henry is afraid of Anne, he thinks. But he will be potent with his new wife.

He gathers himself, gathers his papers; the judges wish to confer. The case against George is flimsy enough in all truth, but if the charges are thrown out, Henry will arraign him on some other matter, and it will go hard with his family, not just the Boleyns but the Howards too: for this reason, he thinks, Uncle Norfolk will not let him escape. And no one has denounced the charges as incredible, at this trial or the trials that preceded it. It has become a thing one can believe, that these men would plot against the king and copulate with the queen: Weston because he is reckless, Brereton because he is old in sin, Mark because he is ambitious, Henry Norris because he is familiar, he is close, he has confused his own person with the person of the king; and George Boleyn, not despite being her brother, but because he is her brother. Boleyns, it is known to all, will do what they need to do to rule; if Anne Boleyn put herself on the throne, walking on the bodies of the fallen, can she not put a Boleyn bastard there too?

He looks up at Norfolk, who gives him a nod. The verdict is in no doubt then, nor the sentence. The only surprise is Harry Percy. The earl rises from his place. He stands, his mouth open slightly, and a silence falls, not the rustling, whispering apology for a silence which the court has endured till now, but a still, expectant hush. He thinks of Gregory: do you want to hear me make a speech? Then the earl pitches forward, unleashes a groan, he crumples, and with a clatter and a thud he hits the floor. At once his prone body is swamped by guardsmen, and a great roar arises, ‘Harry Percy is dead.’

Unlikely, he thinks. They’ll bring him round. It is now mid-afternoon, warm and airless, and the evidence placed before the judges, the written statements alone, would fell a healthy man. There is a length of blue cloth laid over the new boards of the platform on which the judges sit, and he watches the guardsmen rip it up from the floor and improvise a blanket in which to carry the earl; and a memory stabs him, Italy, heat, blood, heaving and rolling and flopping a dying man on to knotted saddlecloths, cloths themselves scavenged from the dead, hauling him into the shade of the wall of – what, a church, a farmhouse? – only so that he could die, cursing, a few minutes later, trying to pack his guts back into the wound from which they were spilling, as if he wanted to leave the world tidy.

He feels sick, and he sits down by the Attorney General. The guardsmen carry the earl out, head lolling, eyes closed, feet dangling. His neighbour says, ‘There is another man the queen has ruined. I suppose we will not know them all for years.’

It is true. The trial is a provisional arrangement, a fix for getting Anne out, Jane in. The effects of it have not been tested yet, the resonances have not been felt; but he expects a quaking at the heart of the body politic, a heaving in the stomach of the commonwealth. He gets up and goes over to urge Norfolk to get the trial under way again. George Boleyn – suspended as he is between trial and conviction – looks as though he might collapse himself, and has begun to weep. ‘Help Lord Rochford to a chair,’ he says. ‘Give him something to drink.’ He is a traitor, but still an earl; he can hear his death sentence sitting down.

Next day, 16 May, he is at the Tower, with Kingston in the constable’s own lodgings. Kingston is fretting because he does not know what sort of scaffold to prepare for the queen: she lies under a dubious sentence, waiting for the king to speak. Cranmer is with her in her lodgings, come to hear her confession, and he will be able to hint to her, delicately, that her cooperation now will spare her pain. That the king still has mercy in him.

A guardsman at the door, addressing the constable: ‘There is a visitor. Not for yourself, sir. For Master Cromwell. It is a foreign gentleman.’

It is Jean de Dinteville, who was here on embassy round about the time Anne was crowned. Jean stands poised in the doorway: ‘They said I should find you here, and as time is short –’

‘My dear friend.’ They embrace. ‘I did not even know you were in London.’

‘I am straight off the boat.’

‘Yes, you look it.’

‘I am no sailor.’ The ambassador shrugs; or at least, his vast padding moves, and subsides again; on this balmy morning, he is wrapped up in bewildering layers, much as a man dresses to face November. ‘Anyway, it seemed best to come here and catch you before you are back playing bowls, which I believe you generally do when you should be receiving our representatives. I am sent to speak to you about young Weston.’

Good God, he thinks, has Sir Richard Weston managed to bribe the King of France?

‘Not a moment too soon. He is sentenced to die tomorrow. What about him?’

‘One is uneasy,’ the ambassador says, ‘if gallantry should be punished. Surely the young man is guilty of nothing more than a poem or two? Paying compliments and making jests? Perhaps the king might spare his life. One understands that for a year or two he would be advised to keep away from the court – travelling, perhaps?’

‘He has a wife and young son, Monsieur. Not that the thought of them has ever constrained his behaviour.’

‘So much the worse, if the king puts him to death. Does Henry not regard his reputation as a merciful prince?’

‘Oh yes. He talks about it a lot. Monsieur, my advice is to forget Weston. Much as my master reveres and respects yours, he will not take it kindly if King Francis were to interfere in something which is, after all, a family matter, something he feels very near his own person.’

Dinteville is amused. ‘One might well call it a family matter.’

‘I notice you do not ask mercy for Lord Rochford. He has been an ambassador, one thought the King of France would be more interested in him.’

‘Ah well,’ the ambassador says. ‘George Boleyn. One understands there is a change of regime, and what that entails. The whole French court hopes, of course, that Monseigneur will not be destroyed.’

‘Wiltshire? He has been a good servant to the French, I see you would miss him. He is in no danger at present. Of course, you cannot look for his influence to be what it was. A change of regime, as you say.’

‘May I say…’ the ambassador stops to sip wine, to nibble a wafer that Kingston’s servants have provided, ‘that we in France find this whole business incomprehensible? Surely if Henry wishes to be rid of his concubine he can do it quietly?’

The French do not understand law courts or parliaments. For them, the best actions are covert actions. ‘And if he must parade his shame to the world, surely one or two adulteries are enough? However, Cremuel,’ the ambassador runs his eye over him, ‘we can speak man to man, can we not? The great question is, can Henry do it? Because what we hear is, he prepares himself, and then his lady gives him a certain look. And his hopes collapse. That seems to us like witchcraft, as witches do commonly render men impotent. But,’ he adds, with a look of sceptical contempt, ‘I cannot imagine that any Frenchman would be so afflicted.’

‘You must understand,’ he says, ‘though Henry is at all points a man, he is a gentleman, and not a cur grunting in the gutter with…well, I say nothing of your own king’s choice of women. These last months,’ he takes a breath, ‘these last weeks particularly, have been a time of great trial and grief for my master. He now seeks happiness. Have no doubt that his new marriage will secure his realm and promote the welfare of England.’

He is talking as if he is writing; already he is casting his version into dispatches.

‘Oh, yes,’ the ambassador says, ‘the little person. One hears no great praise either of her beauty or her wit. He will not really marry her, another woman of no importance? When the Emperor offers him such lucrative matches…or so we hear. We understand everything, Cremuel. As a man and a woman, the king and the concubine may have their disputes, but there are more than the two of them in the world, this is not the Garden of Eden. When all’s said, it is the new politics she doesn’t suit. The old queen was, in some sort, the concubine’s protector, and ever since she died Henry has been plotting how he may become a respectable man again. So he must wed the first honest woman he sees, and in all truth it really does not matter whether she is the Emperor’s relative or no, because with the Boleyns gone, Cremuel is riding high, and he will be sure to pack the council with good imperialists.’ His lip curls; it might be a smile. ‘Cremuel, I wish you would say how much the Emperor Charles pays you. I have no doubt we could match it.’

He laughs. ‘Your master is seated on thorns. He knows my king has money flowing in. He is afraid that he might pay France a visit, and in arms.’

‘You know what you owe King Francis.’ The ambassador is annoyed. ‘Only our negotiations, most astute and subtle negotiations, prevent the Pope from striking your country from the list of Christian nations. We have, I think, been loyal friends to you, representing your cause better than you can yourselves.’

He nods. ‘I always enjoy hearing the French praise themselves. Will you dine with me later this week? Once this is over? And your queasiness has settled down?’

The ambassador inclines his head. His cap badge glitters and winks; it is a silver skull. ‘I shall report to my master that sadly I have tried and failed in the matter of Weston.’

‘Say you came too late. The tide was against you.’

‘No, I shall say Cremuel was against me. By the way, you know what Henry has done, don’t you?’ He seems amused. ‘He sent last week for a French executioner. Not from one of our own cities, but the man who chops heads in Calais. It seems there is no Englishman whom he trusts to behead his wife. I wonder he does not take her out himself and strangle her in the street.’

He turns to Kingston. The constable is an elderly man now, and though he was in France on the king’s business fifteen years ago he has not had much use for the language since; the cardinal’s advice was, speak English and shout loud. ‘Did you get that?’ he asks. ‘Henry has sent to Calais for the headsman.’

‘By the Mass,’ Kingston says. ‘Did he do it before the trial?’

‘So monsieur the ambassador tells me.’

‘I am glad of the news,’ Kingston says, loudly and slowly. ‘My mind. Much relieved.’ He taps his head. ‘I understand he employs a…’ He makes a swishing motion.

‘Yes, a sword,’ Dinteville says in English. ‘You may expect a graceful performance.’ He touches his hat, ‘Au revoir, Master Secretary.’

They watch him go out. It is a performance in itself; his servants need to truss him in further wrappings. When he was here on his last mission, he spent the time sweltering under quilts, trying to sweat out a fever picked up from the influence of the English air, the moisture and the gnawing cold.

‘Little Jeannot,’ he says, looking after the ambassador. ‘He still fears the English summer. And the king – when he had his first audience with Henry, he could not stop shaking from terror. We had to hold him up, Norfolk and myself.’

‘Did I misunderstand,’ the constable says, ‘or did he say Weston was guilty of poems?’

‘Something like that.’ Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe.

‘Anyway, there’s a matter off my mind,’ the constable says. ‘Did you ever see a woman burned? It is something I wish never to see, as I trust in God.’

When Cranmer comes to see him on the evening of 16 May, the archbishop looks ill, shadowed grooves running from nose to chin. Were they there a month ago? ‘I want all this to be over,’ he says, ‘and to get back to Kent.’

‘Did you leave Grete there?’ he says gently.

Cranmer nods. He seems hardly able to say his wife’s name. He is terrified every time the king mentions marriage, and of course these days the king mentions little else. ‘She is afraid that, with his next queen, the king will revert to Rome, and we shall be forced to part. I tell her, no, I know the king’s resolve. But whether he will change his thinking, so a priest can live openly with his wife…if I thought there was no hope of that, then I think I should have to let her go home, before there is nothing there for her. You know how it is, in a few years people die, they forget you, you forget your own language, or so I suppose.’

‘There is every hope,’ he says firmly. ‘And tell her, within a few months, in the new Parliament, I shall have wiped out all remnants of Rome from the statute books. And then, you know,’ he smiles, ‘once the assets are given out…well, once they have been directed to the pockets of Englishmen, they will not revert to the pockets of the Pope.’ He says, ‘How did you find the queen, did she make her confession to you?’

‘No. It is not yet the time. She will confess. At the last. If it comes to it.’

He is glad for Cranmer’s sake. What would be worse at this point? To hear a guilty woman admit everything, or to hear an innocent woman beg? And to be bound to silence, either way? Perhaps Anne will wait until there is no hope of a reprieve, preserving her secrets till then. He understands this. He would do the same.

‘I told her the arrangements made,’ Cranmer says, ‘for the annulment hearing. I told her it will be at Lambeth, it will be tomorrow. She said, will the king be there? I said no, madam, he sends his proctors. She said, he is busy with Seymour, and then she reproached herself, saying, I should not speak against Henry, should I? I said, it would be unwise. She said to me, may I come there to Lambeth, to speak for myself? I said no, there is no need, proctors have been appointed for you too. She seemed downcast. But then she said, tell me what the king wants me to sign. Whatever the king wants, I will agree. He may allow me to go to France, to a convent. Does he want me to say I was wed to Harry Percy? I said to her, madam, the earl denies it. And she laughed.’

He looks doubtful. Even the fullest disclosure, even a complete and detailed admission of guilt, it would not help her, not now, though it might have helped before the trial. The king doesn’t want to think about her lovers, past or present. He has wiped them out of his mind. And her too. She would not credit the extent to which Henry has erased her. He said yesterday, ‘I hope these arms of mine will soon receive Jane.’

Cranmer says, ‘She cannot imagine that the king has abandoned her. It is not yet a month since he made the Emperor’s ambassador bow to her.’

‘I think he did that for his own sake. Not for hers.’

‘I don’t know,’ Cranmer says. ‘I thought he loved her. I thought there was no estrangement between them, up until the last. I am forced to think I don’t know anything. Not about men. Not about women. Not about my faith, nor the faith of others. She said to me, “Shall I go to Heaven? Because I have done many good deeds in my time.”’

She has made the same enquiry of Kingston. Perhaps she is asking everybody.

‘She talks of works.’ Cranmer shakes his head. ‘She says nothing of faith. And I hoped she understood, as I now understand, that we are saved, not by our works, but only through Christ’s sacrifice, and through his merits, not our own.’

‘Well, I do not think you should conclude that she was a papist all this time. What would it have availed her?’

‘I am sorry for you,’ Cranmer says. ‘That you should have the responsibility of uncovering it all.’

‘I did not know what I would find, when I began. That is the only reason I could do it, because I was surprised at every turn.’ He thinks of Mark’s boasting, of the gentlemen before the court twitching away from each other, and evading each other’s eyes; he has learned things about human nature that even he never knew. ‘Gardiner in France is clamouring to know the details, but I find I do not want to write the particulars, they are so abominable.’

‘Draw a veil over it,’ Cranmer agrees. Though the king himself, he does not shrink from the details, it seems. Cranmer says, ‘He is taking it around with him, the book he has written. He showed it the other evening, at the Bishop of Carlisle’s house, you know Francis Bryan has the lease there? In the midst of Bryan’s entertainments, the king took out this text, and began to read it aloud, and press it on all the party. Grief has unhinged him.’

‘No doubt,’ he says. ‘Anyway, Gardiner will be content. I have told him he will be the gainer, when the spoils are given out. The offices, I mean, and the pensions and payments that now revert to the king.’

But Cranmer is not listening. ‘She said to me, when I die, shall I not be the king’s wife? I said, no, madam, for the king would have the marriage annulled, and I have come to seek your consent to that. She said, I consent. She said to me, but will I still be queen? And I think, under statute, she will be. I did not know what to say to her. But she looked satisfied. But it seemed so long. The time I was with her. One moment she was laughing, and then praying, and then fretting…She asked me about Lady Worcester, the child she is carrying. She said she thought the child was not stirring as it should, the lady being now in her fifth month or so, and she thinks it is because Lady Worcester has taken fright, or is sorrowing for her. I did not like to tell her that this lady had given a deposition against her.’

‘I will enquire,’ he says. ‘About my lady’s health. Though not of the earl. He glared at me. I do not know for what cause.’

A number of expressions, all of them unfathomable, chase themselves across the archbishop’s face. ‘Do you not know why? Then I see the rumour is not true. I am glad of it.’ He hesitates. ‘You really do not know? The word at court is that Lady Worcester’s child is yours.’

He is dumbfounded. ‘Mine?’

‘They say you have spent hours with her, behind closed doors.’

‘And that is proof of adultery? Well, I see that it would be. I am paid out. Lord Worcester will run me through.’

‘You do not look afraid.’

‘I am afraid, but not of Lord Worcester.’

More of the times that are coming. Anne climbing the marble steps to Heaven, her good deeds like jewels weighting wrists and neck.

Cranmer says, ‘I do not know why, but she thinks there is still hope.’

All these days he is not alone. His allies are watching him. Fitzwilliam is at his side, disturbed still by what Norris half-told him and then took back: always talking about it, taxing his brain, trying to make complete sentences from broken phrases. Nicholas Carew is mostly with Jane, but Edward Seymour flits between his sister and the privy chamber, where the atmosphere is subdued, vigilant, and the king, like the minotaur, breathes unseen in a labyrinth of rooms. He understands his new friends are protecting their investment. They watch him for any sign of wavering. They want him as deep in the matter as they can contrive, and their own hands hidden, so that if later the king expresses any regret, or questions the haste with which things were done, it is Thomas Cromwell and not they who will suffer.

Riche and Master Wriothesley keep turning up too. They say, ‘We want to give attendance on you, we want to learn, we want to see what you do.’ But they can’t see. When he was a boy, fleeing to put the Narrow Sea between himself and his father, he rolled penniless into Dover, and set himself up in the street with the three-card trick. ‘See the queen. Look well at her. Now…where is she?’

The queen was in his sleeve. The money was in his pocket. The gamblers were crying, ‘You will be whipped!’

He takes the warrants to Henry to be signed. Kingston has still received no word of how the men are to die. He promises, I will make the king concentrate his mind. He says, ‘Majesty, there is no gallows at Tower Hill, and I do not think it would be a good idea to take them to Tyburn, the crowds might be unruly.’

‘Why would they?’ Henry says. ‘The people of London do not love these men. Indeed they do not know them.’

‘No, but any excuse for disorder, and if the weather stays fine…’

The king grunts. Very well. The headsman.

Mark too? ‘After some sort, I promised him mercy if he confessed, and you know he did confess freely.’

The king says, ‘Has the Frenchman come?’

‘Yes, Jean de Dinteville. He has made representations.’

‘No,’ Henry says.

Not that Frenchman. He means the Calais executioner. He says to the king, ‘Do you think that it was in France, when the queen was at court there in her youth, do you think it was there she was first compromised?’

Henry is silent. He thinks, then speaks. ‘She was always pressing me, do you mark what I say…always pressing on me the advantage of France. I think you are right. I have been thinking about it and I do not believe it was Harry Percy took her maidenhead. He would not lie, would he? Not on his honour as a peer of England. No, I believe it was in the court of France she was first debauched.’

So he cannot tell if the Calais headsman, so expert in his art, is a mercy at all; or if this form of death, dealt to the queen, simply meets Henry’s severe sense of the fitness of things.

But he thinks, if Henry blames some Frenchman for ruining her, some foreigner unknown and perhaps dead, so much the better. ‘So it was not Wyatt?’ he says.

‘No,’ Henry says sombrely. ‘It was not Wyatt.’

He had better stay where he is, he thinks, for now. Safer so. But a message can go to him, to say he is not to be tried. He says, ‘Majesty, the queen complains of her attendants. She would like to have women from her own privy chamber.’

‘Her household is broken up. Fitzwilliam has seen to it.’

‘I doubt the ladies have all gone home.’ They are hovering, he knows, in the houses of their friends, in expectation of a new mistress.

Henry says, ‘Lady Kingston must stay, but you can change the rest. If she can find any willing to serve her.’

It is possible Anne still does not know how she has been abandoned. If Cranmer is right, she imagines her former friends are lamenting her, but really they are in a sweat of fear until her head is off. ‘Someone will do her the charity,’ he says.

Henry now looks down at the papers before him, as if he does not know what they are. ‘The death sentences. To endorse,’ he reminds him. He stands by the king while he dips his pen and sets his signature to each of the warrants: square, complex letters, lying heavy on the paper; a man’s hand, when all is said.

He is at Lambeth, in the court convened to hear the divorce proceedings, when Anne’s lovers die: this is the last day of the proceedings, it must be. His nephew Richard is there to represent him on Tower Hill and bring him the word of how it was accomplished. Rochford made an eloquent speech, appearing in command of himself. He was killed first and needed three blows of the axe; after which, the others said not much. All proclaimed themselves sinners, all said they deserved to die, but once again they did not say for what; Mark, left till last and slipping in the blood, called for God’s mercy and the prayers of the people. The executioner must have steadied himself, since after his first blunder all died cleanly.

On paper it is done. The records of the trials are his, to carry to the Rolls House, to keep or destroy or mislay, but the bodies of the dead men are a dirty, urgent problem. The corpses must be put in a cart and brought within the Tower walls: he can see them, a heap of entangled bodies without heads, heaped promiscuously as if on a bed, or as if, like corpses in war, they have already been buried and dug up. Within the fortress they are stripped of their clothes, which are the perquisite of the headsman and his assistants, and left in their shirts. There is a graveyard huddled to the walls of St Peter ad Vincula, and the commoners will be buried there, with Rochford to go alone beneath the floor of the chapel. But now the dead are without the badges of their ranks there is some confusion. One of the burial party said, fetch the queen, she knows their body parts; but others, Richard says, cried shame on him. He says, gaolers see too much, they soon lose their sense of what is fitting. ‘I saw Wyatt looking down from a grate in the Bell Tower,’ Richard says. ‘He signed to me and I wanted to give him hope, but I did not know how to signal that.’

He will be released, he says. But perhaps not until Anne is dead.

The hours to that event seem long. Richard hugs him; says, ‘If she had reigned longer she would have given us to the dogs to eat.’

‘If we had let her reign longer, we would have deserved it.’

At Lambeth, the two proctors for the queen had been present: as the king’s substitutes, Dr Bedyll and Dr Tregonwell, and Richard Sampson as his counsel. And himself, Thomas Cromwell: and the Lord Chancellor, and other councillors, including the Duke of Suffolk, whose own marital affairs have been so entangled that he has learned a certain amount of canon law, swallowing it like a child taking medicine; today Brandon had sat making faces and shifting in his chair, while the priests and lawyers sifted the circumstances. They had talked over Harry Percy, and agreed he was no use to them. ‘I cannot think why you did not get his cooperation, Cromwell,’ the duke says. Reluctantly they had talked over Mary Boleyn, and agreed she would have to furnish the impediment; though the king was as culpable as anyone, for he knew, surely, he could not be contracted to Anne if he had slept with her sister? I suppose the point was not entirely obvious, Cranmer says gently. There was affinity, that is clear, but he had a dispensation from the Pope, which he thought held good at the time. He did not know that, in so grave a matter, the Pope cannot dispense; that point was settled later.

It is all most unsatisfactory. The duke says suddenly, ‘Well, you all know she is a witch. And if she witched him into marriage…’

‘I don’t think the king means that,’ he says: he, Cromwell.

‘Oh, he does,’ says the duke. ‘I thought that was what we had come here to discuss. If she witched him into marriage it was null, is my understanding.’ The duke sits back, his arms folded.

The proctors look at each other. Sampson looks at Cranmer. No one looks at the duke. Eventually Cranmer says, ‘We don’t have to make it public. We can issue the decree but keep the grounds secret.’

A release of breath. He says, ‘I suppose it is some consolation, that we need not be laughed at in public.’

The Lord Chancellor says, ‘The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.’

The Duke of Suffolk speeds to his barge, crying out that at last he is free of the Boleyns.

The end of the king’s first marriage was protracted, public and discussed throughout Europe, not only in the councils of princes but in the market square. The end of his second, if decency prevailed, would be swift, private, unspoken and obscure. Yet it is necessary to have it witnessed by the city and by men of rank. The Tower is a town. It is an armoury, a palace, a mint. Workmen of all sorts, officials come and go. But it can be policed, and foreigners evacuated. He sets Kingston to do this. Anne, he is sorry to learn, has mistaken the day of her death, rising at 2 a.m. to pray on the morning of 18 May, sending for her almoner and for Cranmer to come to her at dawn so she can purge herself of her sins. No one seems to have told her that Kingston comes without fail at dawn on the morning of an execution, to warn the dying person to be ready. She is not familiar with the protocol, and why would she be? Kingston says, see it from my point of view: five deaths in one day, and to be ready for a queen of England the next? How can she die, when the appropriate officials from the city are not here? The carpenters are still making her scaffold on Tower Green, though thankfully she cannot hear the knocking from the royal lodging.

Still, the constable is sorry for her misapprehension; especially since her mistake ran on, late into the morning. The situation is a great strain on both himself and his wife. Instead of being glad of another dawn, he reports, Anne had cried, and said she was sorry not to die that day: she wished she were past her pain. She knew about the French executioner and, ‘I told her,’ Kingston says, ‘it shall be no pain, it is so subtle.’ But once again, Kingston says, she closed her fingers around her throat. She had taken the Eucharist, declaring on the body of God her innocence.

Which surely she would not do, Kingston says, if she were guilty?

She laments the men who are gone.

She makes jokes, saying that she will be known hereafter as Anne the Headless, Anne sans T?te.

He says to his son, ‘If you come with me to witness this, it will be almost the hardest thing you ever do. If you can go through it with a steady countenance, it will be remarked on and it will be much in your favour.’

Gregory just looks at him. He says, ‘A woman, I cannot.’

‘I will be beside you to show you that you can. You need not look. When the soul passes, we kneel, and we drop our eyes, and pray.’

The scaffold has been set up in an open place, where once they used to hold tournaments. A guard of two hundred yeomen is assembling, drawing up to lead the procession. Yesterday’s bungling, the confusion over the date, the delays, the misinformation: none of that must be repeated. He is there early, when they are putting the sawdust down, leaving his son back in Kingston’s lodgings, with the others who are collecting: the sheriffs, aldermen, London’s officers and dignitaries. He stands himself on the steps of the scaffold, testing them to see if they take his weight; one of the sawdust men says to him, it’s sound, sir, we have all run up and down, but I suppose you want to check it yourself. When he looks up the executioner is already there, talking to Christophe. The young man is well-dressed, an allowance having been made him for a gentleman’s apparel, so that he will not be easy to pick out from the other officials; this is done to save alarm to the queen, and if the clothes are spoiled, at least he is not out of pocket himself. He walks up to the executioner. ‘How will you do this?’

‘I shall surprise her, sir.’ Switching into English, the young man indicates his feet. He is wearing soft shoes, such as one might wear indoors. ‘She never sees the sword. I have put it there, in the straw. I shall distract her. She will not see from where I come.’

‘But you will show me.’

The man shrugs. ‘If you like. Are you Cremuel? They told me you are in charge of everything. In fact they joke to me, saying, if you faint because she is so ugly, there is one who will pick up the sword, his name is Cremuel and he is such a man, he can chop the head off the Hydra, which I do not understand what it is. But they say it is a lizard or serpent, and for each head that is chopped two more will grow.’

‘Not in this case,’ he says. Once the Boleyns are done, they are done.

The weapon is heavy, needing a two-handed grip. It is almost four foot in length: two inches broad, round at the tip, a double edge. ‘One practises, like this,’ the man says. He whirls like a dancer on the spot, his arms held high, his fists together as if he were gripping the sword. ‘Every day one must handle the weapon, if only to go through the motions. One may be called at any time. We do not kill so many in Calais, but one goes to other towns.’

‘It is a good trade,’ Christophe says. He wants to handle the sword, but he, Cromwell, does not want to let go of it yet.

The man says, ‘They tell me I may speak French to her and she will understand me.’

‘Yes, do so.’

‘But she will kneel, she must be informed of this. There is no block, as you see. She must kneel upright and not move. If she is steady, it will be done in a moment. If not, she will be cut to pieces.’

He hands back the weapon. ‘I can answer for her.’

The man says, ‘Between one beat of the heart and the next it is done. She knows nothing. She is in eternity.’

They walk away. Christophe says, ‘Master, he has said to me, tell the women that she should wrap her skirts about her feet when she kneels, in case she falls bad and shows off to the world what so many fine gentlemen have already seen.’

He does not reprove the boy for his coarseness. He is crude but correct. And when the moment comes, it will prove, the women do it anyway. They must have discussed it among themselves.

Francis Bryan has appeared beside him, steaming inside a leather jerkin. ‘Well, Francis?’

‘I am charged that as soon as her head is off I ride with the news to the king and Mistress Jane.’

‘Why?’ he says coldly. ‘Do they think the headsman might in some way fail?’

It is almost nine o’clock. ‘Did you eat any breakfast?’ Francis says.

‘I always eat my breakfast.’ But he wonders if the king did. ‘Henry has hardly spoken of her,’ Francis Bryan says. ‘Only to say he cannot see how the whole thing occurred. When he looks back on the last ten years, he cannot understand himself.’

They are silent. Francis says, ‘Look, they are coming.’

The solemn procession, through Coldharbour Gate: the city first, aldermen and officials, then the guard. In the midst of them the queen with her women. She wears a gown of dark damask and a short cape of ermine, a gable hood; it is the occasion, one supposes, to hide the face as much as possible, to guard the expression. That ermine cape, does he not know it? It was wrapped around Katherine, he thinks, when I saw it last. These furs, then, are Anne’s final spoils. Three years ago when she went to be crowned, she walked on a blue cloth that stretched the length of the abbey – so heavy with child that the onlookers held their breath for her; and now she must make shift over the rough ground, picking her way in her little lady’s shoes, with her body hollow and light and just as many hands around her, ready to retrieve her from any stumble and deliver her safely to death. Once or twice the queen falters, and the whole procession must slow; but she has not stumbled, she is turning and looking behind her. Cranmer had said, ‘I do not know why, but she thinks there is still hope.’ The ladies have veiled themselves, even Lady Kingston; they do not want their future lives to be associated with this morning’s work, they do not want their husbands or their suitors to look at them and think of death.

Gregory has slipped into place beside him. His son is trembling and he can feel it. He puts out a gloved hand and rests it on his arm. The Duke of Richmond acknowledges him; he stands in prominent view, with his father-in-law Norfolk. Surrey, the duke’s son, is whispering to his father, but Norfolk gazes straight ahead. How has the house of Howard come to this?

When the women strip the queen of her cape she is a tiny figure, a bundle of bones. She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive. If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe. He says to his son, ‘It will be but a moment now.’ Anne has given alms out as she walks, and the velvet bag is empty now; she slips her hand inside it and turns it inside out, a prudent housewife’s gesture, checking to see that nothing is thrown away.

One of the women stretches out a hand for the purse. Anne passes it without looking at her, then moves to the edge of the scaffold. She hesitates, looks over the heads of the crowd, then begins to speak. The crowd as one sways forward, but can only shuffle by inches towards her, every man with his head lifted, staring. The queen’s voice is very low, her words barely heard, her sentiments the usual ones on the occasion: ‘…pray for the king, for he is a good, gentle, amiable and virtuous prince…’ One must say these things, as even now the king’s messenger might come…

She pauses…But no, she has finished. There is nothing more to say and not more than a few moments left of this world. She takes in a breath. Her face expresses bewilderment. Amen, she says, amen. Her head goes down. Then she seems to draw herself together, to control the tremor that has seized her entire body from head to foot.

One of the veiled women moves to her side and speaks to her. Anne’s arm shakes as she raises it to lift off her hood. It comes easily, no fumbling; he thinks, it cannot have been pinned. Her hair is gathered in a silk net at the nape of her neck and she shakes it out, gathers up the strands, raising her hands above her head, coiling it; she holds it with one hand, and one of the women gives her a linen cap. She pulls it on. You would not think it would hold her hair, but it does; she must have rehearsed with it. But now she looks about as if for direction. She lifts the cap half off her head, puts it back. She does not know what to do, he sees she does not know if she should tie the cap’s string beneath her chin – whether it will hold without fastening or whether she has time to make a knot and how many heartbeats she has left in the world. The executioner steps out and he can see – he is very close – Anne’s eyes focus on him. The Frenchman bobs to his knees to ask pardon. It is a formality and his knees barely graze the straw. He has motioned Anne to kneel, and as she does so he steps away, as if he does not want contact even with her clothes. At arm’s length, he holds out a folded cloth to one of the women, and raises a hand to his eyes to show her what he means. He hopes it is Lady Kingston who takes the blindfold; whoever it is, she is adept, but a small sound comes from Anne as her world darkens. Her lips move in prayer. The Frenchman waves the women back. They retreat; they kneel, one of them almost sinks to the ground and is propped up by the others; despite the veils one can see their hands, their helpless bare hands, as they draw their own skirts about them, as if they were making themselves small, making themselves safe. The queen is alone now, as alone as she has ever been in her life. She says, Christ have mercy, Jesus have mercy, Christ receive my soul. She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God’s sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if – the executioner calls out sharply, ‘Get me the sword.’ The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.

The Duke of Suffolk is still standing. Richmond too. All others, who have knelt, now get to their feet. The executioner has turned away, modestly, and already handed over his sword. His assistant is approaching the corpse but the four women are there first, blocking him with their bodies. One of them says fiercely, ‘We do not want men to handle her.’

He hears young Surrey say, ‘No, they have handled her enough.’ He says to Norfolk, my lord, take your son in charge, and take him away from this place. Richmond, he sees, looks ill, and he sees with approval how Gregory goes to him and bows, friendly as one young boy can be to another, saying, my lord, leave it now, come away. He does not know why Richmond did not kneel. Perhaps he believes the rumours that the queen tried to poison him, and will not offer her even that last respect. With Suffolk, it is more understandable. Brandon is a hard man and owes Anne no forgiveness. He has seen battle. Though never a bloodletting like this.

It seems Kingston did not think further than the death, to the burial. ‘I hope to God,’ he, Cromwell says to no one in particular, ‘that the constable has remembered to have the flags taken up in the chapel,’ and someone answers him, I think so, sir, for they were levered up two days ago, so her brother could go under.

The constable has not helped his reputation these last few days, though he has been kept in uncertainty by the king and, as he will admit later, he had thought all morning that a messenger might suddenly arrive from Whitehall, to stop it: even when the queen was helped up the steps, even to the moment she took off her hood. He has not thought of a coffin, but an elm chest for arrows has been hastily emptied and carried to the scene of the carnage. Yesterday it was bound for Ireland with its freight, each shaft ready to deal separate, lonely damage. Now it is an object of public gaze, a death casket, wide enough for the queen’s little body. The executioner has crossed the scaffold and lifted the severed head; in a yard of linen he swaddles it, like a newborn. He waits for someone to take the burden. The women, unassisted, lift the queen’s sodden remains into the chest. One of them steps forward, receives the head, and lays it – no other space – by the queen’s feet. Then they straighten up, each of them awash in her blood, and stiffly walk away, closing their ranks like soldiers.

That evening he is at home at Austin Friars. He has written letters into France, to Gardiner. Gardiner abroad: a crouching brute nibbling his claws, waiting for his moment to strike. It has been a triumph, to keep him away. He wonders how much longer he can do it.

He wishes Rafe were here, but either he is with the king or he has gone back to Helen in Stepney. He is used to seeing Rafe most days and he cannot get used to the new order of things. He keeps expecting to hear his voice, and to hear him and Richard, and Gregory when he is at home, scuffling in corners and trying to push each other downstairs, hiding behind doors to jump on each other, doing all those tricks that even men of twenty-five or thirty do when they think their grave elders are not nearby. Instead of Rafe, Mr Wriothesley is with him, pacing. Call-Me seems to think someone should give an account of the day, as if for a chronicler; or if not that, that he should give an account of his own feelings. ‘I stand, sir, as if upon a headland, my back to the sea, and below me a burning plain.’

‘Do you, Call-Me? Then come in from the wind,’ he says, ‘and have a cup of this wine Lord Lisle sends me from France. I do usually keep it for my own drinking.’

Call-Me takes the glass. ‘I smell burning buildings,’ he says. ‘Fallen towers. Indeed there is nothing but ash. Wreckage.’

‘But it’s useful wreckage, isn’t it?’ Wreckage can be fashioned into all sorts of things: ask any dweller on the sea shore.

‘You have not properly answered on one point,’ Wriothesley says. ‘Why did you let Wyatt go untried? Other than because he is your friend?’

‘I see you do not rate friendship highly.’ He watches Wriothesley take that in.

‘Even so,’ Call-Me says. ‘Wyatt I see poses you no threat, nor has he slighted or offended you. William Brereton, he was high-handed and offended many, he was in your way. Harry Norris, young Weston, well, there are gaps where they stood, and you can put your own friends in the privy chamber alongside Rafe. And Mark, that squib of a boy with his lute; I grant you, the place looks tidier without him. And George Rochford struck down, that sends the rest of the Boleyns scurrying away, Monseigneur will have to scuttle back to the country and sing small. The Emperor will be gratified by all that has passed. It is a pity the ambassador’s fever kept him away today. He would like to have seen it.’

No he would not, he thinks. Chapuys is squeamish. But you ought to get up from your sickbed if you need to, and see the results you have willed.

‘Now we shall have peace in England,’ Wriothesley says.

A phrase runs through his head – was it Thomas More’s? – ‘the peace of the hen coop when the fox has run home’. He sees the scattered carcasses, some killed with one snap of the jaw, the rest bitten and shredded as the fox whirls and snaps in panic as the hens flap about him, as he spins around and deals death: the remnants then to be sluiced away, the mulch of scarlet feathers plastered over the floor and walls.

‘All the players gone,’ Wriothesley says. ‘All four who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool Mark who made a ballad of their exploits.’

‘All four,’ he says. ‘All five.’

‘A gentleman asked me, if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?’

He stands looking down into the darkening garden: transfixed, the question like a knife between his shoulderblades. There is only one man among all the king’s subjects to whom that question would occur, only one who would dare pose it. There is only one man who would dare question the loyalty he shows to his king, the loyalty he demonstrates daily. ‘So…’ he says at last. ‘Stephen Gardiner calls himself a gentleman.’

Perhaps, caught in the little panes which distort and cloud, Wriothesley sees a dubious image: confusion, fear, emotions that do not often mark Master Secretary’s face. Because if Gardiner thinks this, who else? Who else will think it in the months and years ahead? He says, ‘Wriothesley, surely you don’t expect me to justify my actions to you? Once you have chosen a course, you should not apologise for it. God knows, I mean nothing but good to our master the king. I am bound to obey and serve. And if you watch me closely you will see me do it.’

He turns, when he thinks it is fit for Wriothesley to see his face. His smile is implacable. He says, ‘Drink my health.’