The Mirror and the Light

Sometimes Hilary Mantel has done the preparation, and five words can produce a rush of horror, a foretaste of the gates of Hell closing behind you. And sometimes, a phrase is so beautifully turned that it stands by itself:

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.

‘They ask,’ Wriothesley says, ‘who was the greatest of the cardinal’s enemies? They answer, the king. So, they ask – when chance serves, what revenge will Thomas Cromwell seek on his sovereign, his prince?’

There were certain miserable divines, in darker days than these, who said that if God had meant us to wear coloured clothes He would have made coloured sheep.

At his feet, eels are swimming in a pail, twisting and gliding; interlacing in their futile efforts, as they wait to be killed and sauced.

Incest is a sin, we all acknowledge; but then so is congress in any position other than the one approved by priests. So is congress on a Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion; or on Sundays, Saturdays and Wednesdays. If you listen to churchmen, it’s a sin to penetrate a woman during Lent and Advent – or on saints’ days, though the calendar is bright with festivals. More than half the year is accursed, one way and another. It’s a wonder anyone is ever born.

The age of persuasion has ended, as far as Henry is concerned; it ended the day More dripped to the scaffold, to drown in blood and rainwater. Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed, biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

He is not as other Englishmen, his masters said, when they sent him to their friends: does not brawl in the street, does not spit like a devil, carries a knife but keeps it in his coat.

His body trembled, his lower limbs shook, he sagged and staggered as he rehearsed what he would never let the world see, his fear, his incredulity, his hope that this was a dream from which he might wake: his eyes slitted by tears, his teeth chattering, his hands blindly grasping, his head seeking a shoulder where it might rest.

you would hear the aspirations of the dying, you would hear them cry to God for mercy. And all these, the souls of England, cry to me, the king tells him, to me and every king: each king carries the crimes of other kings, and the need for restitution rolls forward down the years.

Pole’s folly is, that he thinks aloud.

‘I hear you will bring in a law,’ Kingston says. ‘It seems harsh, to make them commit a crime in retrospect.’ They try to explain it to the constable. A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up.

In Wyatt’s verse there is a tussle in every line. In the verse of Lord Thomas, there is no contest at all, just a smooth surrender to idiocy.

It’s two years since Bishop Fisher tottered down that stair, led to his execution. He was old, spent, frail; his body lay on the scaffold like a piece of dried seaweed.

‘We will dispose of him. Most of us do wrong, if we know it or not. Enquire into any man’s conduct, and I am sure some charge will lie.’

If you marvel at your good fortune, you should marvel in secret: never let people see you. When you are Lord Privy Seal you must walk abroad with solemn countenance, looking chosen by Jesus, like More did when he was chancellor.

‘You see, Dick, Dick, it is why we have courts of law, and judges, and juries … to protect us from the tyranny of one man’s opinion.’

There is a place, a sequestered place in the imagination, where the eel boy is always waiting to be whipped, where George Boleyn is always in his prison room, always rising in welcome: Master Cromwell, I knew you would come.

Black elongates the young man’s spider limbs. As he turns, a red-gloved hand on the horse’s mane, a low shaft of sunlight catches him and he glitters, head to toe, as a web glints with dew. On closer inspection, it proves he is sewn over with diamonds. He should have thrown a cloak around himself, even at the risk of dimming his lustre; high-bred though the jennet is, she still smells of horse.

-When my brother was led to the scaffold, I was quick with child, but I would have come to court to petition for him. I would have begged to wear mourning for him, and observe the proper rites, in which I would have found some solace, I dare say – but one does not pray for a traitor’s soul, nor wear black for him. At a traitor’s demise, one must smile.
-I do not think the old king would have required that.
-You did not know him. In those days no one was safe… “He who climbs higher than he should, falls lower than he would.”
-A feeble saying, and feebly expressed. It leans on that same conceit, the wheel. What I say is, these are new times. New engines drive them.
-…You speak of new times and new engines. These engines may rust before you have wheeled them to the fight. Do not join battle with the noble families of England. You have lost before you ride out. Who are you? You are one man. Who follows you? Only carrion crows, bone-pickers. Do not stop moving, or they will eat you alive.’

One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king’s father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

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