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I wonder, he thinks, are there rats down there? Cavendish says, ‘Recall His Grace of Canterbury?’
Recall him – fifteen years after the cardinal chivvied him out of that office? ‘No, Warham’s too old.’ And too stubborn, too unaccommodating to the king’s wishes. ‘And not the Duke of Suffolk’ – because in his view Charles Brandon is no brighter than Christopher the mule, though better at fighting and fashion and generally showing off – ‘not Suffolk, because the Duke of Norfolk won’t have him.’
‘And vice versa.’ Cavendish nods. ‘Bishop Tunstall?’
‘No. Thomas More.’
‘But, a layman and a commoner? And when he’s so opposed in the matter of the king’s marriage suit.’
He nods, yes, yes, it will be More. The king is known for putting out his conscience to high bidders. Perhaps he hopes to be saved from himself.
‘If the king offers it – and I see that, as a gesture, he might – surely Thomas More won’t accept?’
‘Bet?’ says Cavendish.
They agree the terms and shake hands on it. It takes their mind off the urgent problem, which is the rats, and the cold; which is the question of how they can pack a household staff of several hundred, retained at Westminster, into the much smaller space at Esher. The cardinal’s staff, if you include his principal houses, and count them up from priests, law clerks, down to floor-sweepers and laundresses, is about six hundred souls. They expect three hundred following them immediately. ‘As things stand, we’ll have to break up the household,’ Cavendish says. ‘But we’ve no ready money for wages.’
‘I’m damned if they’re going unpaid,’ he says, and Cavendish says, ‘I think you are anyway. After what you said about the relic.’
He catches George’s eye. They start to laugh. At least they’ve got something worthwhile to drink; the cellars are full, which is lucky, Cavendish says, because we’ll need a drink over the next weeks. ‘What do you think Norris meant?’ George says. ‘How can the king be in two minds? How can my lord cardinal be dismissed if he doesn’t want to dismiss him? How can the king give way to my lord’s enemies? Isn’t the king master, over all the enemies?’
‘You would think so.’
‘Or is it her? It must be. He’s frightened of her, you know. She’s a witch.’
He says, don’t be childish. George says, she is so a witch: the Duke of Norfolk says she is, and he’s her uncle, he should know.
It’s two o’clock, then it’s three; sometimes it’s freeing, to think you don’t have to go to bed because there isn’t a bed. He doesn’t need to think of going home; there’s no home to go to, he’s got no family left. He’d rather be here drinking with Cavendish, huddled in a corner of the great chamber at Esher, cold and tired and frightened of the future, than think about his family and what he’s lost. ‘Tomorrow,’ he says, ‘I’ll get my clerks down from London and we’ll try and make sense of what my lord still has by way of assets, which won’t be easy as they’ve taken all the paperwork. His creditors won’t be inclined to pay up when they know what’s happened. But the French king pays him a pension, and if I remember it’s always in arrears … Maybe he’d like to send a bag of gold, pending my lord’s return to favour. And you – you can go looting.’
Cavendish is hollow-faced and hollow-eyed when he throws him on to a fresh horse at first light. ‘Call in some favours. There’s hardly a gentleman in the realm that doesn’t owe my lord cardinal something.’
It’s late October, the sun a coin barely flipped above the horizon. ‘Keep him cheerful,’ Cavendish says. ‘Keep him talking. Keep him talking about what Harry Norris said …’
‘Off you go. If you should see the coals on which St Lawrence was roasted, we could make good use of them here.’
‘Oh, don’t,’ Cavendish begs. He has come far since yesterday, and is able to make jokes about holy martyrs; but he drank too much last night, and it hurts him to laugh. But not to laugh is painful too. George’s head droops, the horse stirs beneath him, his eyes are full of bafflement. ‘How did it come to this?’ he asks. ‘My lord cardinal kneeling in the dirt. How could it happen? How in the world could it?’
He says, ‘Saffron. Raisins. Apples. And cats, get cats, huge starving ones. I don’t know, George, where do cats come from? Oh, wait! Do you think we can get partridges?’
If we can get partridges we can slice the breasts, and braise them at the table. Whatever we can do that way, we will; and so, if we can help it, my lord won’t be poisoned.
II An Occult History of Britain 1521–1529 (#ulink_251ac8f4-909f-5ba1-9e15-52bf522f6b6c)
Once, in the days of time immemorial, there was a king of Greece who had thirty-three daughters. Each of these daughters rose up in revolt and murdered her husband. Perplexed as to how he had bred such rebels, but not wanting to kill his own flesh and blood, their princely father exiled them and set them adrift in a rudderless ship.
Their ship was provisioned for six months. By the end of this period, the winds and tides had carried them to the edge of the known earth. They landed on an island shrouded in mist. As it had no name, the eldest of the killers gave it hers: Albina.
When they hit shore, they were hungry and avid for male flesh. But there were no men to be found. The island was home only to demons.
The thirty-three princesses mated with the demons and gave birth to a race of giants, who in turn mated with their mothers and produced more of their own kind. These giants spread over the whole landmass of Britain. There were no priests, no churches and no laws. There was also no way of telling the time.
After eight centuries of rule, they were overthrown by Trojan Brutus.
The great-grandson of Aeneas, Brutus was born in Italy; his mother died in giving birth to him, and his father, by accident, he killed with an arrow. He fled his birthplace and became leader of a band of men who had been slaves in Troy. Together they embarked on a voyage north, and the vagaries of wind and tide drove them to Albina’s coast, as the sisters had been driven before. When they landed they were forced to do battle with the giants, led by Gogmagog. The giants were defeated and their leader thrown into the sea.
Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter. Trojan Brutus and his descendants ruled till the coming of the Romans. Before London was called Lud’s Town, it was called New Troy. And we were Trojans.
Some say the Tudors transcend this history, bloody and demonic as it is: that they descend from Brutus through the line of Constantine, son of St Helena, who was a Briton. Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again.
His blessed descendant, Prince Arthur of England, was born in the year 1486, eldest son of Henry, the first Tudor king. This Arthur married Katherine the princess of Aragon, died at fifteen and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. If he were alive now, he would be King of England. His younger brother Henry would likely be Archbishop of Canterbury, and would not (at least, we devoutly hope not) be in pursuit of a woman of whom the cardinal hears nothing good: a woman to whom, several years before the dukes walk in to despoil him, he will need to turn his attention; whose history, before ruin seizes him, he will need to comprehend.
Beneath every history, another history.
The lady appeared at court at the Christmas of 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. She was – what? – about twenty years old. Daughter of the diplomat, Thomas Boleyn, she has been brought up since childhood in the Burgundian court at Mechelen and Brussels, and more recently in Paris, moving in Queen Claude’s train between the pretty chateaux of the Loire. Now she speaks her native tongue with a slight, unplaceable accent, strewing her sentences with French words when she pretends she can’t think of the English. At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverance. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.
The cardinal hauls in her father. ‘Sir Thomas Boleyn,’ he says, ‘speak to your daughter, or I will. We brought her back from France to marry her into Ireland, to the Butlers’ heir. Why does she tarry?’
‘The Butlers …’ Sir Thomas begins, and the cardinal says, ‘Oh yes? The Butlers what? Any problem you have there, I’ll fix the Butlers. What I want to know is, did you put her up to it? Conniving in corners with that foolish boy? Because, Sir Thomas, let me make myself plain: I won’t have it. The king won’t have it. It must be stopped.’
‘I have scarcely been in England these last months. Your Grace cannot think that I am party to the scheme.’
‘No? You would be surprised what I can think. Is this your best excuse? That you can’t govern your own children?’
Sir Thomas is looking wry and holding out his hands. He’s on the verge of saying, young people today … But the cardinal stops him. The cardinal suspects – and has confided his suspicion – that the young woman is not enticed by the prospect of Kilkenny Castle and its frugal amenities, nor by the kind of social life that will be available to her when, on special occasions, she hacks on the poor dirt roads to Dublin.
‘Who’s that?’ Boleyn says. ‘In the corner there?’
The cardinal waves a hand. ‘Just one of my legal people.’
‘Send him out.’
The cardinal sighs.
‘Is he taking notes of this conversation?’
‘Are you, Thomas?’ the cardinal calls. ‘If so, stop it at once.’
Half the world is called Thomas. Afterwards, Boleyn will never be sure if it was him.
‘Look now, my lord,’ he says, his voice playing up and down the diplomat’s scales: he is frank, a man of the world, and his smile says, now Wolsey, now Wolsey, you’re a man of the world too. ‘They’re young.’ He makes a gesture, designed to impersonate frankness. ‘She caught the boy’s eye. It’s natural. I’ve had to break it to her. She knows it can’t proceed. She knows her place.’
‘Good,’ the cardinal says, ‘because it’s below a Percy. I mean,’ he adds, ‘below, in the dynastic sense. I am not speaking of what one might do in a haystack on a warm night.’
‘He doesn’t accept it, the young man. They tell him to marry Mary Talbot, but …’ and Boleyn gives a little careless laugh, ‘he doesn’t care to marry Mary Talbot. He believes he is free to choose his wife.’
‘Choose his –!’ the cardinal breaks off. ‘I never heard the like. He’s not some ploughboy. He’s the man who will have to hold the north for us, one of these days, and if he doesn’t understand his position in the world then he must learn it or forfeit it. The match already made with Shrewsbury’s daughter is a fit match for him, and a match made by me, and agreed by the king. And the Earl of Shrewsbury, I can tell you, doesn’t take kindly to this sort of moonstruck clowning by a boy who’s promised to his daughter.’
‘The difficulty is …’ Boleyn allows a discreet diplomatic pause. ‘I think that, Harry Percy and my daughter, they may have gone a little far in the matter.’
‘What? You mean we are speaking of a haystack and a warm night?’
From the shadows he watches; he thinks Boleyn is the coldest, smoothest man he has ever seen.
‘From what they tell me, they have pledged themselves before witnesses. How can it be undone, then?’
The cardinal smashes his fist on the table. ‘I’ll tell you how. I shall get his father down from the borders, and if the prodigal defies him, he will be tossed out of his heirdom on his prodigal snout. The earl has other sons, and better. And if you don’t want the Butler marriage called off, and your lady daughter shrivelling unmarriageable down in Sussex and costing you bed and board for the rest of her life, you will forget any talk of pledges, and witnesses – who are they, these witnesses? I know those kind of witnesses who never show their faces when I send for them. So never let me hear it. Pledges. Witnesses. Contracts. God in Heaven!’
Boleyn is still smiling. He is a poised, slender man; it takes the effort of every finely tuned muscle in his body to keep the smile on his face.
‘I do not ask you,’ says Wolsey, relentless, ‘whether in this matter you have sought the advice of your relatives in the Howard family. I should be reluctant to think that it was with their agreement that you launched yourself on this scheme. I should be sorry to hear the Duke of Norfolk was apprised of this: oh, very sorry indeed. So let me not hear it, eh? Go and ask your relatives for some good advice. Marry the girl into Ireland before the Butlers hear any rumour that she’s spoiled goods. Not that I’d mention it. But the court does talk.’
Sir Thomas has two spots of angry red on his cheekbones. He says, ‘Finished, my lord cardinal?’
Boleyn turns, in a sweep of dark silks. Are those tears of temper in his eyes? The light is dim, but he, Cromwell, is of very strong sight. ‘Oh, a moment, Sir Thomas …’ the cardinal says. His voice loops across the room and pulls his victim back. ‘Now, Sir Thomas, remember your ancestry. The Percy family comprise, I do think, the noblest in the land. Whereas, notwithstanding your remarkable good fortune in marrying a Howard, the Boleyns were in trade once, were they not? A person of your name was Lord Mayor of London, not so? Or have I mixed up your line with some Boleyns more distinguished?’
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