LONDON, MAY 1536
Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.
But then he turns back, to say a word of thanks to the executioner. The man has performed his office with style; and though the king is paying him well, it is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse. Having once been a poor man, he knows this from experience.
The small body lies on the scaffold where it has fallen: belly down, hands outstretched, it swims in a pool of crimson, the blood seeping between the planks. The Frenchman—they had sent for the Calais executioner—had picked up the head, swaddled it in linen, then handed it to one of the veiled women who had attended Anne in her last moments. He saw how, as she received the bundle, the woman shuddered from the nape of her neck to her feet. She held it fast though, and a head is heavier than you expect. Having been on a battlefield, he knows this from experience too.
The women have done well. Anne would have been proud of them. They will not let any man touch her; palms out, they force back those who try to help them. They slide in the gore and stoop over the narrow carcass. He hears their indrawn breath as they lift what is left of her, holding her by her clothes; they are afraid the cloth will rip and their fingers touch her cooling flesh. Each of them sidesteps the cushion on which she knelt, now sodden with her blood. From the corner of his eye he sees a presence flit away, a fugitive lean man in a leather jerkin. It is Francis Bryan, a nimble courtier, gone to tell Henry he is a free man. Trust Francis, he thinks: he is a cousin of the dead queen, but he has remembered he is also a cousin of the queen to come.
The officers of the Tower have found, in lieu of a coffin, an arrow chest. The narrow body fits it. The woman who holds the head genuflects with her soaking parcel. As there is no other space, she fits it by the corpse’s feet. She stands up, crossing herself. The hands of the bystanders move in imitation, and his own hand moves; but then he checks himself, and draws it into a loose fist.
The women take their last look. Then they step back, their hands held away from them so as not to soil their garments. One of Constable Kingston’s men proffers linen towels—too late to be of use. These people are incredible, he says to the Frenchman. No coffin, when they had days to prepare? They knew she was going to die. They were not in any doubt.
‘But perhaps they were, Maître Cremuel.’ (No Frenchman can ever pronounce his name.) ‘Perhaps they were, for I believe the lady herself thought the king would send a messenger to stop it. Even as she mounted the steps she was looking over her shoulder, did you see?’
‘He was not thinking of her. His mind is entirely on his new bride.’
‘Alors, perhaps better luck this time,’ the Frenchman says. ‘You must hope so. If I have to come back, I shall increase my fee.’
The man turns away and begins cleaning his sword. He does it lovingly, as if the weapon were his friend. ‘Toledo steel.’ He proffers it for admiration. ‘We still have to go to the Spaniards to get a blade like this.’
He, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal. You would not guess it to look at him now, but his father was a blacksmith; he has affinity with iron, steel, with everything that is mined from the earth or forged, everything that is made molten, or wrought, or given a cutting edge. The executioner’s blade is incised with Christ’s crown of thorns, and with the words of a prayer.
Now the spectators are moving away, courtiers and aldermen and city officials, knots of men in silk and gold chains, in the livery of the Tudors and in the insignia of the London guilds. Scores of witnesses, none of them sure of what they have seen; they understand that the queen is dead, but it was too quick to comprehend. ‘She didn’t suffer, Cromwell,’ Charles Brandon says.
‘My lord Suffolk, you may be satisfied she did.’
Brandon disgusts him. When the other witnesses knelt, the duke stayed rigid on his feet; he so hated the queen that he would not do her that much courtesy. He remembers her faltering progress to the scaffold: her glance, as the Frenchman says, was directed over her shoulder. Even when she said her last words, asking the people to pray for the king, she was looking over the head of the crowd. Still, she did not let hope weaken her. Few women are so resolute at the last, and not many men. He had seen her start to tremble, but only after her final prayer. There was no block, the man from Calais did not use one. She had been required to kneel upright, with no support. One of her women bound a cloth across her eyes. She did not see the sword, not even its shadow, and the blade went through her neck with a sigh, easier than scissors through silk. We all—well, most of us, not Brandon—regret that it had to come to this.
Now the elm chest is carried towards the chapel, where the flags have been lifted so she can go in by the corpse of her brother, George Boleyn. ‘They shared a bed when they were alive,’ Brandon says, ‘so it’s fitting they share a tomb. Let’s see how they like each other now.’
‘Come, Master Secretary,’ says the Constable of the Tower. ‘I have arranged a collation, if you will do me the honour. We were all up early today.’
‘You can eat, sir?’ His son Gregory has never seen anyone die.
‘We must work to eat and eat to work,’ Kingston says. ‘What use to the king is a servant who is distracted, merely for want of a piece of bread?’
‘Distracted,’ Gregory repeats. Recently his son was sent off to learn the art of public speaking, and the result is that, though he still lacks the command that makes for rhetorical sweep, he has become more interested in words if you take them one by one. Sometimes he seems to be holding them up for scrutiny. Sometimes he seems to be poking them with a stick. Sometimes, and the comparison is unavoidable, he seems to approach them with the tail-wagging interest a dog takes in another dog’s turds. He asks the constable, ‘Sir William, has a queen of England ever been executed before?’
‘Not to my knowledge,’ the constable says. ‘Or at least, young man, not on my watch.’
‘I see,’ he says: he, Cromwell. ‘So the errors of the last few days are just because you lack practice? You can’t do a thing just once and get it right?’
Kingston laughs heartily. Presumably because he thinks he’s making a joke. ‘Here, my lord Suffolk,’ he says to Charles Brandon. ‘Cromwell says I need more practice in lopping heads.’
I didn’t say that, he thinks. ‘The arrow chest was a lucky find.’
‘I’d have put her on a dunghill,’ Brandon says. ‘And the brother underneath her. And I’d have made their father witness it. I don’t know what you are about, Cromwell. Why did you leave him alive to work mischief?’
He turns on him, angry; often, anger is what he fakes. ‘My lord Suffolk, you have often offended the king yourself, and begged his pardon on your knees. And being what you are, I have no doubt you will offend again. What then? Do you want a king to whom the notion of mercy is foreign? If you love the king, and you say you do, pay some heed to his soul. One day he will stand before God and answer for every subject. If I say Thomas Boleyn is no danger to the realm, he is no danger. If I say he will live quiet, that is what he will do.’
The courtiers tramping across the green eye them: Suffolk with his big beard, his flashing eye, his big chest, and Master Secretary subfusc, low-slung, square. Warily, they separate and flow around the quarrel, reuniting in chattering parties at the other side.
‘By God,’ Brandon says. ‘You read me a lesson? I? A peer of the realm? And you, from the place where you come from?’
‘I stand just where the king has put me. I will read you any lesson you should learn.’
He thinks, Cromwell, what are you doing? Usually he is the soul of courtesy. But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?
He glances sideways at his son. We are three years older, less a month, than at Anne’s coronation. Some of us are wiser; some of us are taller. Gregory had said he could not do it, when told he should witness her death: ‘I cannot. A woman, I cannot.’ But his boy has kept his face arranged and his tongue governed. Each time you are in public, he has told Gregory, know that people are observing you, to see if you are fit to follow me in the king’s service.
They step aside to bow to the Duke of Richmond: Henry Fitzroy, the king’s bastard son. He is a handsome boy with his father’s fine flushed skin and red-blond hair: a tender plant, willowy, a boy who has not yet grown into his great height. He sways above them both. ‘Master Secretary? England is a better place this morning.’
Gregory says, ‘My lord, you also did not kneel. How is that?’
Richmond blushes. He knows he is in the wrong, and shows it as his father always does; but like his father, he will defend himself with a stout self-righteousness. ‘I would not be a hypocrite, Gregory. My lord father has declared to me how Boleyn would have poisoned me. He says she boasted she would do it. Well, now her monstrous adulteries are all found out, and she is properly punished.’
‘You are not ill, my lord?’ He is thinking, too much wine last night: toasting his future, no doubt.
‘I am only tired. I will go and sleep. Put this spectacle behind me.’
Gregory’s eyes follow Richmond. ‘Do you think he can ever be king?’
‘If he is, he’ll remember you,’ he says cheerfully.
‘Oh, he knows me already,’ Gregory says. ‘Did I do wrong?’
‘It is not wrong to speak your mind. On selected occasions. They make it painful for you. But you must do it.’
‘I don’t think I shall ever be a councillor,’ Gregory says. ‘I don’t think I could ever learn it—when to speak and when to keep silence, when I should look and when I should not. You told me, the moment you see the blade in the air, then she is dying—at that moment, you said, bow your head and close your eyes. But I saw you—you were looking.’
‘Of course I was.’ He takes his son’s arm. ‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’ She may be dead, he thinks, but she can still ruin me.
* * *
Breakfast. Fine white loaves, wine of head-spinning strength. The Duke of Norfolk, the dead woman’s uncle, gives him a nod. ‘Most corpses wouldn’t fit in an arrow chest, eh? You’d have to hack the arms off. Do you think Kingston’s getting past it?’
Gregory is surprised. ‘Sir William is no older than yourself, my lord.’
A bark of laughter: ‘You think men of sixty should be put out to grass?’
‘He thinks they should be boiled for glue.’ He puts an arm around his son’s shoulders. ‘He’ll soon be boiling his father, won’t you?’
‘But you are far younger than my lord Norfolk,’ Gregory turns to the duke, the better to inform him. ‘My father is in sound health, if you except his special fever, which he got when he was in Italy. It is true he works long hours, but he believes long hours never killed anybody, he often says so. His doctor says you couldn’t fell him with a cannonball.’
By now the witnesses have seen the late queen nailed down and are packing in at the open doors. The city officers jostle, keen for a word with him. One question in their mouths: Master Secretary, when shall we see the new queen? When will Jane do us the honour? Will she ride through the streets, or sail in the royal barge? What arms and emblems will she take as queen, and what motto? When may we notify the painters and artificers and set them to work? Will there be a coronation soon? What present can we make her, that will find favour in her eyes?
‘A bag of money is always acceptable,’ he says. ‘I do not think we will see her in public till she and the king are married, but that will not be long. She is pious in the old style and any banners or painted cloths depicting the angels and saints, and the Holy Virgin, will be well-accepted by her.’
‘So,’ says the Lord Mayor, ‘we can look out what we have had in store since Queen Katherine’s time?’
‘That would be prudent, Sir John, and save the city’s funds.’
‘We have the life of St Veronica in panels,’ an elderly guildsman says. ‘On the first, she stands weeping by the route to Calvary, as Christ bears his cross. On the second—’
‘Of course,’ he murmurs.
‘—on the second, the saint wipes the face of our Saviour. On the third, she holds up the bloody cloth, and there we may see the image of Christ, printed clearly in his precious blood.’
‘My wife observed,’ says Constable Kingston, ‘that this morning the lady left aside her usual headdress, and chose the style the late Katherine favoured. She wonders what she meant by it.’
Perhaps it was a courtesy, he thinks, from a dying queen to a dead one. They will be meeting this morning in another country, where no doubt they will have much to tell.
‘Would that my niece had imitated Katherine in other particulars,’ Norfolk says. ‘Had she been obedient, chaste and meek, her head might still be on her shoulders.’
Gregory is so amazed that he takes a step back, into the Lord Mayor. ‘But my lord, Katherine was not obedient! Did she not defy the king’s will year after year, when he told her to go away and be divorced? Did you yourself not go down to the country to enforce her, and she slammed into her chamber and turned the key, so you were obliged to spend the twelve days of Christmas shouting through a door?’
‘You’ll find that was my lord Suffolk,’ the duke says shortly. ‘Another useless dotard, eh, Gregory? That’s Charles Brandon over there—the mighty fellow with the big beard. I am the stringy fellow with the bad temper. See the difference?’
‘Ah,’ Gregory says, ‘I remember now. My father enjoyed the tale so much, we performed it as a play at Twelfth Night. My cousin Richard played my lord Suffolk, wearing a woolly beard to his waist. And Mr Rafe Sadler put on a skirt and played the queen, insulting the duke in the Spanish tongue. And my father took the part of the door.’
‘I wish I had seen it.’ Norfolk rubs the tip of his nose. ‘No, I tell you, Gregory, I honestly do.’ He and Charles Brandon are old rivals, and enjoy each other’s embarrassments. ‘I wonder what you’ll play this Christmas?’
Gregory opens his mouth and closes it again. The future is a curious blank. He, Cromwell, intervenes, before his son attempts to fill it. ‘Gentlemen, I can tell you what the new queen will take as her motto. It is Bound to Obey and Serve.’
There is a murmur of approbation that runs right around the room. Brandon’s big laugh booms out: ‘Better safe than sorry, eh?’
‘So say we all.’ Norfolk tips back his canary wine. ‘Whoever crosses the king in the years ahead, gentlemen, it will not be Thomas Howard here.’ He stabs a finger into his own breastbone, as if otherwise they might not know who he is. Then he slaps Master Secretary on the shoulder, with every appearance of comradeship. ‘So what now, Cromwell?’
Don’t be deceived. Uncle Norfolk is not our comrade or our ally or our friend. He is slapping us to appraise how solid we are. He is eyeing the Cromwell bull-neck. He is wondering what sort of blade you’d need, to slice through that.
Copyright © 2020 by Hilary Mantel