“And thus much I will say to you, that I intend, God willing, this afternoon, when my lord hath dined, to ride to London, and so to the court, where I will either make or mar or I come again.”
— Thomas Cromwell, as quoted by George Cavendish in his biography, The Life and Death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey —
November 1, 1529
Rain, does it ever not? The wind whipping, the rain pelts upon the window glass here in Esher’s Great Chamber on this day set aside for all saints. Though morning, it is dark, the clouds closing in, suffocating me as sure as the pillows undone the poor princes in the Tower. God speaks volumes, and He bellows his displeasure at me as sure as that bastard village drunk. For every sin done, and every sin wished done, and every sin yet done, He now punishes me, laughing. Last summer, my good dear wife, the woman who taught me how to be a gentleman, woke up one morning with a chill, and by noon she was dead with sweat. Three months past, she came for our daughters. Why Elizabeth? Anne was learning her Latin verse, and Grace her rhymes. I was away at Oxford at Thomas Cardinal Wolsey’s bidding yet again, yet another monastery closed for good measure, riches deferred to educate the sons of this realm. Could I not at least be with them? Did they have to die in the arms of servants, Elizabeth? Answer me woman.
I rest my head against the window pane, the cool damp mist seeping through my sorrowful soul. A year ago, I was the happiest man in Christendom. Now all I’ve strove for, worked for, fought for, slaved for, connived for, bargained for, bartered for, loved for — a family, a reputation, a comfortable home, wealth and an assured future for my son, companionship in my grey years — it’s gone, first my wife, then my daughters, and now my means of living, laid in waste at the whim of King Henry’s cod piece, the man intent on having the Boleyn girl, not his pretty discarded mistress, but the dark one.
I look down at the primer I’m gently holding, gifted from His Grace to my Grace upon her birth, and open to a random parchment. Hmmm… if I pray Our Lady Mattens right here and right now, will she come to me? Tears welling in a weak moment, I begin… mumbling along the versicles, the venite, all the psalms and lessons, like a good Catholic should in times like these.
“Hail Queen mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, our hope. Unto thee do we cry and sigh, weeping and wailing. Come of therefore our Patroness, cast upon us thy pitiful eyes, and after this our banishment shown to us the blessed fruit of thy womb. Oh Gate of glory be for as a reconciliation onto the father and the son. From the wretched their faults expel: wipe the spots of sins unclean. ”
No grace. Damn it all, there is no grace. Where is my Grace? Her mother must be holding on tightly, as she will not come. Grace never does.
“Why Master Cromwell?”
My God, I startle upright, dropping the primer on the floor. How long has he been standing there? Cavendish, he is a slippery sort, I do swear — always coming up upon me unawares. If ever a man be a spy, with desires to know all Wolsey does, all Wolsey says, all the Wolsey thinks, Cavendish is him. My dear clerk Ralph says he keeps a journal, writes down God knows what about God knows who. I trust him not. In these times, I trust not a soul — even my mother, if she still walked among us.
“What means all this, your sorrow?”
I turn towards Cavendish. God knows I must be a sight. I glare him down for good measure. How dare he interrupt my sanctity?
“Is my lord in danger, for whom you lament this? Or is it for any loss you have sustained by any misadventure?”
Downcast still, I think my answer best be good. God knows my words may end in that blasted journal of his, bound among the parchments through time eternal. His Eminence — the great Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, yes his plight is bleak. Stripped of his garter and chains of status, all his worldly goods, thrice counted and inventoried by me to be sure, the great Cardinal whom I did think one day would be Pope, turned in the great seal, now in the hands of heretic chasing More. I decide to answer frankly, nothing else to lose but my character, which already suffers much. My family pains I’ll leave unsaid. All already know, and it be no more than most men, save the celibate. “No, no, it is my unhappy adventure. I am likely to lose all that I have travailed for all these days of my life, for doing of my master, true and diligent services.”
Cavendish is the most loyal and trusted servant of my blessed Cardinal, not I, truth be told. He looks at me kindly, and my walls fall if but a smidget, no more.
“Why Sir? I trust you to be wise, to commit anything by my lord’s commandment, otherwise than you ought to do of right, whereof you have cause to doubt of loss of your goods.”
I answer honestly. My situation bleak, I speak the obvious. “Well, well, I cannot tell; but all things I see before mine eyes is as it is taken; and this I understand right well, that I am in disdain with most men for my master’s sake; and surely without just cause. Howbeit, an ill name once gotten will not lightly be put away. ”
Aye, an ill name once gotten will not be lightly put away. Christ laments my soul to the fire, thrice burnt.
To make or mar, a gentleman or damned to hell; yes, to make or mar I am — and I told that Cavendish right square. This afternoon, after the Cardinal’s last dinner with those few here still close, left with naught but his gratitude, I am riding out to Court. I lost plumb all so far as I can see, so no harm done. Stephen Vaughan, my good friend doing my bidding in Antwerp, will think me daft, but you can’t win lest you place the bet. Yes, heading to Austin Friars to barrister for land greedy folk would be my safest lot, but I told dear Ralph Sadleir, find me a seat in Parliament. Do what you can, man. Call in all favors, forgive loans if need be. With a seat, I can sweeten my fate at will, trade a vote here and there for favor, lay the King’s agenda to law if he behests — but I will cleave to no man, no faction. No longer will my fate be hinged in the back of another, for if the great Cardinal fell to the depths, so can Norfolk, Suffolk, Gardiner, More and the high rising Wiltshire, riding on the bosom, flat though it be, of his daughter, the Lady Anne Boleyn. The King, he is a fickle one — but His Eminence, my beloved Cardinal, he taught me well indeed, both what to do and say and when and how, and God save him, what not. I’ll rest my wagers with me, and me alone. God help me.
As I piss the day away preparing for the journey to a future untold, Cardinal Wolsey fell to his knees through two long masses, gave his confession that must laid bare half the morning plus I am sure, and then led yet his own mass for his yeoman and gentlemen servants. Heavens man, don’t these clerics have anything better to do but raise the host on and on and yet on once again? Won’t just one mass do? Is God deaf? Daft? The village idiot? All these priests, so devout and humble so they profess, their vestments are done filled high with hearty indulgences. They will soon leave him for the likes of Gardiner. So why the pretense? Make it so, and just damn go.
Fumbling through my papers, a dear servant calls to me. “Master Cromwell, do come to dinner. His Eminence, well he needs you. He dines in his privy chamber.”
I gently nod at the man. That poor snog has not a farthing, no payment coming for his service done well. “Must I go?” I ask teasingly.
“Aye, best you do, good man. There be no escape for you,” he says knowingly with a broad smile.
I rise from my desk in surrender to attending the inevitable meal of penance. Before heading off, I offer mine thoughts, as that be all we have between us. “God be with you, James. May His Eminence, our beloved Cardinal, find you safe haven.”
He nods. “And to you and yours, Master Cromwell.”
“If God be good to us James, we shall meet again at Sunday morn’ Mass and not in line at Archdeacon Gardiner’s for a dole, eh?”
“Aye, if I be you Master Cromwell, I would stay clear of the Archdeacon’s doles. Me thinks the King’s Secretary likes you not.”
I laugh. “So you think the Archdeacon would poison me then, good man?”
“Aye… I do, aye yes,” he says with the smirk of the devil.
I will miss dear James. I will miss them all. Resigned to my fate, I brush the dust off my doublet, bow respectfully and set out on my way to the Cardinal’s last feast. O Lord help me. I be in foul humors.
Damn, I always hated this dank privy chamber. It smells worse than a piss pot with meats stirred in. God knows why.
The Last Supper — by the intercession of Saint Thomas Beckett’s relic toe nails, let this be the last damn supper I sit with this brooding lot. Holy Christ, I am fidgeting like Gregory at Christmas Mass, picking at the roast boar, likely the last boar this sorry brood will dine in plenty a fortnight. Where did His Eminence get this meal of plenty? Did Norfolk or Suffolk owe him one last favor before damning this great man to a life of embarrassment, depravity and house arrest? Mayhaps dear Ralph will tell me later, a bartered deal I paid for knowing not. And there be poor James again, serving this brood of clergy and gentlemen, his plight now tugging at what’s left of my conscience. Yes, this is no time for staying mute. I’ll speak my mind, and then again if I must.
“Your Eminence, in all conscience, I do beseech that you do repay your humble servants, both yeoman and gentlemen, for their truth and loyal service done to you, never forsaking you, even in these times of trial and tribulation.”
There, I have his attention. Though an annoyed glare, I’ll take it still. I venture on. What the hell? What can he do? Release me once more from my living? Mayhaps, but I am the last friend he has.
I take a deep breathe, as if I don’t speak truth, who will? Certainly not these chaplains present. “I do so beseech that your Eminence call these men all before you, let them know you rightly appreciate their patience, truth and faith to you. Give these yeoman and gentlemen, who stayed the course these dismal days, your heartiest commendation, and reassure them still that they will continue to serve your good until God calls you.”
The silence is deafening, all around the dining table waiting on his word, what response the Cardinal will give me. One of the priests looks to me and snickers. Oh, I will not forget that. Oh no, I will not. He best pray I mar, the pig. When His Eminence finally speaks, we all bolt upright, like from the first bolt of thunder in an unexpected storm.
“Thomas, you know my finances, my budget, best said lack thereof! Alas, I have nothing to give them. Words with no tender be hollow indeed.”
The defeated Thomas Cardinal Wolsey grows silent once more, seeking words that don’t come easy. His face grows sullen, poor man. I do think he is close to tears. With this, the clergymen surrounding me look chastising, like I am Satan himself, placing His Eminence in this predicament for my own jolly. For those who have much, they see no need of it. Pity these fools who professed to a life of poverty. Their coffers overflow, so they know no pain of the common man. They need to stymie themselves right now.
“Thomas, I am ashamed but to say I must no longer accept their faithful service to me. As much as they do honor me through their humble diligence now as in my glory, and I have cause to rejoice their truth and honor born on to me all these many years, I have nothing to give them. Nothing, Thomas… nothing at all. I want again to at very least give substance among them so they may leave, hence to return when His Majesty calms thus and restores me. I have not even that, man. You know this well enough, so why taunt me?”
A tad ashamed, but not much, I nod knowingly. I inventoried all his worldly goods, every piece of silver, every goblet, every rich vestment, every tapestry, every coin. I transferred them all, every last knife, every last lacework, to the Crown myself. The Cardinal was left with nothing. Again, the clergymen glare me down, like a heretic holding Lutheran tracts instead of the rosary. They fright me not. I rise, gesture towards them sitting around the table, and speak to His Eminence — and through him to them. I pound my fist on the table with grand effect, jolting those seated to attention.
“Your Eminence, look to these men around this table! Aren’t they right among us your chaplains? Are these not holy men sworn to poverty that you treated with great liberty? By your preference are not some of these pious men dispensed 1000 marks each year, some even more, some a little less? None of these men chaplain here to you; yet they have all, and your servants nothing! And now in your time of need, they impart not a farthing to you in gratitude for all their riches and liberties. I do swear some day, each and all these chaplains will be viewed with indignation for their ingratitude to their master and lord, for their limitless indulgences and fortune, so help me God!”
The Cardinal holds up his hand in command that I quiet. Respectfully, I do. I’ve said enough. Mayhaps, I said too much. Humbly he speaks, more to me a father than my father. “Calm Thomas, calm down, good man. Though I have no crowns, no pounds, not a farthing, do bring my servants to the great hall. I can at least give them my hearty commendation as you suggest.”
George Cavendish, faithful to the end, he will stay with our lord and master to his death I am sure. As helpful as any a man can be on this most dreadful of All Saints Days, he scurries to collect all the servants of His Eminence, yeomen and gentleman alike. Under his watch, down one row of Esher’s Great Hall lines up the yeoman, cooks and cattlemen, chimney sweeps and ostlers, farmers and soldier guards. Along the row on the opposing side, lines the Cardinal’s honorable gentleman servants. The sight brings a smile to my face, many of these men showing me every gracious welcome through the years.
I walk up to Cavendish, and in all sincerity say, “You are most faithful and diligent of all, good man. Do watch guard for His Eminence, and I shall do same.” We nod to each other knowingly. Yes, we shall — always, to his death, the commitment given graciously and willingly to the greatest man in Christendom, our mentor, my friend.
As the room lay silent as a congregation of the dead, the great Thomas Cardinal Wolsey enters, followed by his chaplains, shamed into accompanying I am sure. Wearing modest vestments of lace surplice over a bishop’s purple cassock, he looks suddenly old and frail — not the powerful rotund man in crimson velvet who rode a donkey into Court, not the man who lead this nation while a young king played his games of Camelot, and certainly not the man who took a chance on me, the son of Putney’s town drunk. At the sight of him, Cavendish and I sigh deeply as one, both looking to the floor for a short spell, a tactic to compose ourselves quickly. May our strength now be his, as his was ours so long hence. I tug on Cavendish’s sleeve and motion. His Eminence, distressed to uncomfortable silence, turns away from us all, breaking into quiet sobs. I walk across the room and stand beside him. The Cardinal will not do this deed I so beseechingly implored alone. As I grab hold to his arm to steady him, I feel him breath deeply, straight from the gut. Finally, he wipes his tears, and speaks, his voice with a slight quiver.
“As you all know, His Majesty in his greatest of wisdom finds it his pleasure to take all I own into his possession, Master Cromwell here doing my stead to insure His Majesty’s commands were done in all diligence. So, all I own I wear now, certainly not so grand as you all are so accustomed. If my worldly goods be here, please know now I would divide them among you.”
In all graciousness and with kind regard, all the yeomen and gentlemen nod, acknowledging his words as if gospel. Though beaten to near death and standing no richer than a pauper, the Cardinal commands devotion still from all of us who know him.
“Fret not, good men. I doubt but His Majesty, in all his loving benevolence, knowing that the offenses so brought by mine enemies have no truth, will shortly restore me. And when this good day comes, I will be able then to divide among you deserved wages, the surpluses of my wealth divided equally one and all. Until then, do take leave to your families, with my blessing and return in three months hence, by then my riches restored.”
All in the Great Hall now fall silent. These men, they have no means to go anywhere, do anything. They lack the resources to live yet a day without the Cardinal’s favor, though none he now has. This just won’t do, not at all. I release His Eminence’s arm, and speak frankly, again gesturing at the chaplains present.
“Your Eminence, I am certain your yeomen would feel blessed to see their families, as they so now do just once per year if best, but they have no money. But look a yonder. Here they are, your chaplains, great men with great benefices. Oh yes, in their high dignities, let them show themselves, as they are bound to do by their solemn vow of poverty. Their charity abounding, I am certain they can assist in this cause.”
I look to the clergymen, a wide grin on my face. Dig deep, you dirty dogs, dig deep. I look back at the great Cardinal, and he nods to me, a slight grin on his face. Yes, I learned well, dear man. I took careful notes, like Cavendish, but in my mind, not parchment. I layer it on once more to shame the bastards. They will do these men right or look like the fools they are.
“Now Your Eminence, though I have received not a penny towards my yearly living, I will happily donate to these men who have none.”
I dig deep into my purse, pull out five pounds gold and toss it upon the table before us. “There, Your Eminence. Now let us do see what these most benevolent chaplains will do. With all their indulgences and riches bestowed by your loving patronage, I am certain they can and will donate to you a pound for each of my pennies.”
The Cardinal turns from the sight of his chaplains, and rests his hand upon my shoulder. He bends into my ear and whispers, “Remember all I told you, Thomas. Remember it all or you shall perish. These tricks Thomas, this heavy handed tone, will work not at Court. The Dukes, those with royal blood, they will cut you down.”
I nod knowingly, and then point over to the table and smile. The chaplains, they are laying down crowns one and all. “Aye, but not this night.”