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It is about ten o’clock. The flames of the wax candles bow civilly to the cardinal, and stand straight again. The rain – it has been raining since last September – splashes against the glass window. ‘In Yorkshire,’ he says, ‘your project is disliked.’
The cardinal’s project: having obtained the Pope’s permission, he means to amalgamate some thirty small, ill-run monastic foundations with larger ones, and to divert the income of these foundations – decayed, but often very ancient – into revenue for the two colleges he is founding: Cardinal College, at Oxford, and a college in his home town of Ipswich, where he is well remembered as the scholar son of a prosperous and pious master butcher, a guild-man, a man who also kept a large and well-regulated inn, of the type used by the best travellers. The difficulty is … No, in fact, there are several difficulties. The cardinal, a Bachelor of Arts at fifteen, a Bachelor of Theology by his mid-twenties, is learned in the law but does not like its delays; he cannot quite accept that real property cannot be changed into money, with the same speed and ease with which he changes a wafer into the body of Christ. When he once, as a test, explained to the cardinal just a minor point of the land law concerning – well, never mind, it was a minor point – he saw the cardinal break into a sweat and say, Thomas, what can I give you, to persuade you never to mention this to me again? Find a way, just do it, he would say when obstacles were raised; and when he heard of some small person obstructing his grand design, he would say, Thomas, give them some money to make them go away.
He has the leisure to think about this, because the cardinal is staring down at his desk, at the letter he has half-written. He looks up. ‘Tom …’ And then, ‘No, never mind. Tell me why you are scowling in that way.’
‘The people up there say they are going to kill me.’
‘Really?’ the cardinal says. His face says, I am astonished and disappointed. ‘And will they kill you? Or what do you think?’
Behind the cardinal is a tapestry, hanging the length of the wall. King Solomon, his hands stretched into darkness, is greeting the Queen of Sheba.
‘I think, if you’re going to kill a man, do it. Don’t write him a letter about it. Don’t bluster and threaten and put him on his guard.’
‘If you ever plan to be off your guard, let me know. It is something I should like to see. Do you know who … But I suppose they don’t sign their letters. I shall not give up my project. I have personally and carefully selected these institutions, and His Holiness has approved them under seal. Those who object misunderstand my intention. No one is proposing to put old monks out on the roads.’
This is true. There can be relocation; there can be pensions, compensation. It can be negotiated, with goodwill on both sides. Bow to the inevitable, he urges. Deference to the lord cardinal. Regard his watchful and fatherly care; believe his keen eye is fixed on the ultimate good of the church. These are the phrases with which to negotiate. Poverty, chastity and obedience: these are what you stress when you tell some senile prior what to do. ‘They don’t misunderstand,’ he says. ‘They just want the proceeds themselves.’
‘You will have to take an armed guard when next you go north.’
The cardinal, who thinks upon a Christian’s last end, has had his tomb designed already, by a sculptor from Florence. His corpse will lie beneath the outspread wings of angels, in a sarcophagus of porphyry. The veined stone will be his monument, when his own veins are drained by the embalmer; when his limbs are set like marble, an inscription of his virtues will be picked out in gold. But the colleges are to be his breathing monument, working and living long after he is gone: poor boys, poor scholars, carrying into the world the cardinal’s wit, his sense of wonder and of beauty, his instinct for decorum and pleasure, his finesse. No wonder he shakes his head. You don’t generally have to give an armed guard to a lawyer. The cardinal hates any show of force. He thinks it unsubtle. Sometimes one of his people – Stephen Gardiner, let’s say – will come to him denouncing some nest of heretics in the city. He will say earnestly, poor benighted souls. You pray for them, Stephen, and I’ll pray for them, and we’ll see if between us we can’t bring them to a better state of mind. And tell them, mend their manners, or Thomas More will get hold of them and shut them in his cellar. And all we will hear is the sound of screaming.
‘Now, Thomas.’ He looks up. ‘Do you have any Spanish?’
‘A little. Military, you know. Rough.’
‘You took service in the Spanish armies, I thought.’
‘Ah. Indeed. And no fraternising?’
‘Not past a point. I can insult people in Castilian.’
‘I shall bear that in mind,’ the cardinal says. ‘Your time may come. For now … I was thinking that it would be good to have more friends in the queen’s household.’
Spies, he means. To see how she will take the news. To see what Queen Catalina will say, in private and unleashed, when she has slipped the noose of the diplomatic Latin in which it will be broken to her that the king – after they have spent some twenty years together – would like to marry another lady. Any lady. Any well-connected princess whom he thinks might give him a son.
The cardinal’s chin rests on his hand; with finger and thumb, he rubs his eyes. ‘The king called me this morning,’ he says, ‘exceptionally early.’
‘What did he want?’
‘Pity. And at such an hour. I heard a dawn Mass with him, and he talked all through it. I love the king. God knows how I love him. But sometimes my faculty of commiseration is strained.’ He raises his glass, looks over the rim. ‘Picture to yourself, Tom. Imagine this. You are a man of some thirty-five years of age. You are in good health and of a hearty appetite, you have your bowels opened every day, your joints are supple, your bones support you, and in addition you are King of England. But.’ He shakes his head. ‘But! If only he wanted something simple. The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.’
‘And when you take some out, it just fills up again?’
‘Exactly. Now the chest of gold I have hopes of, and the elixir, all the rest. But where shall I begin looking for a son to rule his country after him?’
Behind the cardinal, moving a little in the draught, King Solomon bows, his face obscured. The Queen of Sheba – smiling, light-footed – reminds him of the young widow he lodged with when he lived in Antwerp. Since they had shared a bed, should he have married her? In honour, yes. But if he had married Anselma he couldn’t have married Liz; and his children would be different children from the ones he has now.
‘If you cannot find him a son,’ he says, ‘you must find him a piece of scripture. To ease his mind.’
The cardinal appears to be looking for it, on his desk. ‘Well, Deuteronomy. Which positively recommends that a man should marry his deceased brother’s wife. As he did.’ The cardinal sighs. ‘But he doesn’t like Deuteronomy.’
Useless to say, why not? Useless to suggest that, if Deuteronomy orders you to marry your brother’s relict, and Leviticus says don’t, or you will not breed, you should try to live with the contradiction, and accept that the question of which takes priority was thrashed out in Rome, for a fat fee, by leading prelates, twenty years ago when the dispensations were issued, and delivered under papal seal.
‘I don’t see why he takes Leviticus to heart. He has a daughter living.’
‘But I think it is generally understood, in the Scriptures, that “children” means “sons”.’
The cardinal justifies the text, referring to the Hebrew; his voice is mild, lulling. He loves to instruct, where there is the will to be instructed. They have known each other some years now, and though the cardinal is very grand, formality has faded between them. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘You know that, of course. God forgive me. A weakness of the flesh.’
The cardinal’s son – Thomas Winter, they call him – seems inclined to scholarship and a quiet life; though his father may have other ideas. The cardinal has a daughter too, a young girl whom no one has seen. Rather pointedly, he has called her Dorothea, the gift of God; she is already placed in a convent, where she will pray for her parents.
‘And you have a son,’ the cardinal says. ‘Or should I say, you have one son you give your name to. But I suspect there are some you don’t know, running around on the banks of the Thames?’
‘I hope not. I wasn’t fifteen when I ran away.’
It amuses Wolsey, that he doesn’t know his age. The cardinal peers down through the layers of society, to a stratum well below his own, as the butcher’s beef-fed son; to a place where his servant is born, on a day unknown, in deep obscurity. His father was no doubt drunk at his birth; his mother, understandably, was preoccupied. Kat has assigned him a date; he is grateful for it.
‘Well, fifteen …’ the cardinal says. ‘But at fifteen I suppose you could do it? I know I could. Now I have a son, your boatman on the river has a son, your beggar on the street has a son, your would-be murderers in Yorkshire no doubt have sons who will be sworn to pursue you in the next generation, and you yourself, as we have agreed, have spawned a whole tribe of riverine brawlers – but the king, alone, has no son. Whose fault is that?’
‘Nearer than God?’
‘More responsible for everything than the queen?’
He can’t help a broad smile. ‘Yourself, Your Grace.’
‘Myself, My Grace. What am I going to do about it? I tell you what I might do. I might send Master Stephen to Rome to sound out the Curia. But then I need him here …’
Wolsey looks at his expression, and laughs. Squabbling underlings! He knows quite well that, dissatisfied with their original parentage, they are fighting to be his favourite son. ‘Whatever you think of Master Stephen, he is well grounded in canon law, and a very persuasive fellow, except when he tries to persuade you. I will tell you –’ He breaks off; he leans forward, he puts his great lion’s head in his hands, the head that would indeed have worn the papal tiara, if at the last election the right money had been paid out to the right people. ‘I have begged him,’ the cardinal says. ‘Thomas, I sank to my knees and from that humble posture I tried to dissuade him. Majesty, I said, be guided by me. Nothing will ensue, if you wish to be rid of your wife, but a great deal of trouble and expense.’
‘And he said …?’
‘He held up a finger. In warning. “Never,” he said, “call that dear lady my wife, until you can show me why she is, and how it can be so. Till then, call her my sister, my dear sister. Since she was quite certainly my brother’s wife, before going through a form of marriage with me.”’
You will never draw from Wolsey a word that is disloyal to the king. ‘What it is,’ he says, ‘it’s …’ he hesitates over the word, ‘it’s, in my opinion … preposterous. Though my opinion, of course, does not go out of this room. Oh, don’t doubt it, there were those at the time who raised their eyebrows over the dispensation. And year by year there were persons who would murmur in the king’s ear; he didn’t listen, though now I must believe that he heard. But you know the king was the most uxorious of men. Any doubts were quashed.’ He places a hand, softly and firmly, down on his desk. ‘They were quashed and quashed.’
But there is no doubt of what Henry wants now. An annulment. A declaration that his marriage never existed. ‘For eighteen years,’ the cardinal says, ‘he has been under a mistake. He has told his confessor that he has eighteen years’ worth of sin to expiate.’
He waits, for some gratifying small reaction. His servant simply looks back at him: taking it for granted that the seal of the confessional is broken at the cardinal’s convenience.
‘So if you send Master Stephen to Rome,’ he says, ‘it will give the king’s whim, if I may –’
The cardinal nods: you may so term it.
‘– an international airing?’
‘Master Stephen may go discreetly. As it were, for a private papal blessing.’
‘You don’t understand Rome.’
Wolsey can’t contradict him. He has never felt the chill at the nape of the neck that makes you look over your shoulder when, passing from the Tiber’s golden light, you move into some great bloc of shadow. By some fallen column, by some chaste ruin, the thieves of integrity wait, some bishop’s whore, some nephew-of-a-nephew, some monied seducer with furred breath; he feels, sometimes, fortunate to have escaped that city with his soul intact.
‘Put simply,’ he says, ‘the Pope’s spies will guess what Stephen’s about while he is still packing his vestments, and the cardinals and the secretaries will have time to fix their prices. If you must send him, give him a great deal of ready money. Those cardinals don’t take promises; what they really like is a bag of gold to placate their bankers, because they’re mostly run out of credit.’ He shrugs. ‘I know this.’
‘I should send you,’ the cardinal says, jolly. ‘You could offer Pope Clement a loan.’
Why not? He knows the money markets; it could probably be arranged. If he were Clement, he would borrow heavily this year to hire in troops to ring his territories. It’s probably too late; for the summer season’s fighting, you need to be recruiting by Candlemas. He says, ‘Will you not start the king’s suit within your own jurisdiction? Make him take the first steps, then he will see if he really wants what he says he wants.’
‘That is my intention. What I mean to do is to convene a small court here in London. We will approach him in a shocked fashion: King Harry, you appear to have lived all these years in an unlawful manner, with a woman not your wife. He hates – saving His Majesty – to appear in the wrong: which is where we must put him, very firmly. Possibly he will forget that the original scruples were his. Possibly he will shout at us, and hasten in a fit of indignation back to the queen. If not, then I must have the dispensation revoked, here or in Rome, and if I succeed in parting him from Katherine I shall marry him, smartly, to a French princess.’
No need to ask if the cardinal has any particular princess in mind. He has not one but two or three. He never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting, shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities. While he is doing his best to keep the king married to Queen Katherine and her Spanish-Imperial family, by begging Henry to forget his scruples, he will also plan for an alternative world, in which the king’s scruples must be heeded, and the marriage to Katherine is void. Once that nullity is recognised – and the last eighteen years of sin and suffering wiped from the page – he will readjust the balance of Europe, allying England with France, forming a power bloc to oppose the young Emperor Charles, Katherine’s nephew. And all outcomes are likely, all outcomes can be managed, even massaged into desirability: prayer and pressure, pressure and prayer, everything that comes to pass will pass by God’s design, a design re-envisaged and redrawn, with helpful emendations, by the cardinal. He used to say, ‘The king will do such-and-such.’ Then he began to say, ‘We will do such-and-such.’ Now he says, ‘This is what I will do.’
‘But what will happen to the queen?’ he asks. ‘If he casts her off, where will she go?’
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