Where does Gregory's sweet nature come from? It must be the result of his mother's prayers. Richard Williams, Kat's boy, is sharp, keen and forward. Christopher, his sister Bet's boy, is clever and willing too. And then he has Rafe Sadler, whom he trusts as he would trust his son; it's not a dynasty, he thinks, but it's a start.
- Wolf Hall, Ch. II, 'An Occult History of Britain'
Your Father once told you to retrace his steps through a conversation, figure out where they began to find out where you had become lost.
Retrace your steps, you, Gregory, think as the axe swings. You do not flinch. Your cold, pale gentleman’s hands do not tremor.
Retrace your steps. How did we get here?
The thing you remember most from your childhood; more than the hazy memories of your mother, more than the half forgotten faces of your long dead sisters, God have mercy on their souls, more than even the constant presence of Rafe and Richard, is the way your Father touched your hands. When he said goodbye to you before you went away to Cambridge, he kissed your cheek and your hand. When he slid into your room when midnight was slipping away, when he thought you were long asleep, he’d brush your hair from your face and gently tuck your hands under the covers.
(Later, when he is in his final cell, he will hold your hand through the bars. You will weep. Later.)
You do not understand this. Your hands are unremarkable; pale, unblemished from life. For a while, you start fights in Austin Friars in order to remedy this: hoping to make them into a man’s hands, a fighters hands. You always lose these fights. You are not a fighter, not made for the physical rough and tumble of the world. His hands, though, they were hulking, heavy, full of fluent words and imminent danger.
When you have your sons, you understand. All want their sons to be better, free from the violence of their fathers and forefathers. Henry Tudor looms over you as Walter did to your father.
Beneath every history, another history.
Your Father has many sons.
You are the only son of blood, the only one who sprung from him, but there are many others. There is Richard, who borrowed his surname when Cromwell began to mean much more than Williams ever did; Richard, who is your brother. There is Thomas Wyatt, who is wild and unpredictable, but is loyal, always loyal. Even Christophe, a borrowed son from Calais who you imagine is more like your Father than you will ever be (this is probably a good thing; you are a gentleman, Christophe is―indescribable). There are many others, boys bought in from the streets, taught the value of this facial expression, the importance of that handwave.
Then there is a Rafe.
Rafe is a constant. Rafe was at Austin Friars before you were born, Rafe will outlive you by decades. Rafe is shrewd, with dark eyes which burn with intelligence. Rafe understands the letters and numbers which confound you, the Latin trips off his tongue like he’s a Roman, a Claudius of Putney. When you were still green in the world you used to be jealous of the way he worked with your father, the way it all came so easily to him. Your father looks to him for advice in a way he never has and never will look to you.
It burned you. Your father has many sons, but you were his only son. Rafe was not his true son. You told him that once, when you were petulant and fourteen summers old. It is the year your father brings the King his Supremacy. You, a child, are jealous of the way your father gives him a fatherly tap on the back.
Rafe looks at you, with those shrewd, dark eyes. You feel he can see your soul, Gregory Cromwell in all your awkward, developing grace.
Rafe does not give you a brotherly shove like Richard might, or spit like Christophe (thank the Virgin for that). He looks at you, and says, yes, I am aware.
It is then you realise that this jealousy might be reflected.
You awkwardly murmur an apology, like the gentleman Cambridge you should be. Ever your father’s son, Rafe just smiles, and extends a hand ahead.
You walk into Austin Friars together.
You are too young to understand what it means when Wolsey falls, really.
You feel pinpricks of fear when Anne Boleyn loses her head to the sword.
When Anne of Cleves is rejected, it is terror.
They take Rafe from his bed, your father from a Council meeting, Wyatt too. You will never forget the sound of the scraping of armour, the rough yelling of soldiers as they tore through the house your father built. Rafe walks, because he is proud, because he knows that is what his master would do, is doing, as they march him into the Tower.
You are reminded of when the King’s men came in the night, years ago, because he had dreamt of his dead brother. Then, your father had convinced him he was King Arthur, and began a reformation of religion.
This evening does not end with relieved laughing, a hand slung around your shoulders. This can only end in blood.
He, Cromwell, the father―not the son, prays the day that Anne Boleyn goes to her death.
He does not kneel, he does not weep, he does not worry for his immortal soul. The silence of the church is a pleasant relief after the constant noise of court; the sound of states made and destroyed, battles won, battles lost.
You win or you die, Anne, he thinks, She knew this, she who had danced a volta on the edge of a sword for so many years. You are dead, and I am alive. Such is the game. I will not pray for your soul, Anne, because you would not pray for mine. You would not want my prayers, he knows.
Instead, he prays for Gregory. He will marry well, a Seymour girl, perhaps, considering the way the world is turning. Then, Gregory will have children, who will be born into luxury he was never afforded with Walter.
That’s what this all comes down to.
Not falling back into the Putney sludge.
(It will never come to that.)
Your Father is in the tower.
Your wife has written a letter to your sovereign (oh, how you wish you could spit the word) calling your father detestable―how little she detested him when he was Earl of Essex, the red right hand―whilst he withers away in the tower.
You try to think of what Rafe would say, how Rafe would act. Would he whisper conspiratorially of plans, plans, always planning, or would be offer some great words of support? As you climb the spiralling stairs, which are worn by the feet of those who loved traitors, you try and be like Rafe.
Rafe, of course, is the room below. Maybe it is time to be Gregory rather than Rafe.
The first thing you notice in the cold, damp room, is that your father has lost weight. Where you are thin and pale, your father is rotund, healthy. Now his eyes have sunken further back into his face, his middle is shrunk. You think maybe he has lost his spirit, finally broken.
When he looks up, sees your face, it is as if someone has set a fire within him. Maybe not so broken, then.
Gregory, he says, voice smooth. It is not hoarse, you note. That means they have not tortured him. Or, the voice that sounds like Rafe in your head (yes, you are thinking of Rafe. Always. You can be Gregory and still think of Rafe) says, perhaps they have not yet tortured him. Or not hard enough. These court men are soft, like Gregory. They are not hard like your father. Gregory, it is good to see you, he says.
Father, you say, and before you realise it, the tears are welling. You blink furiously, angry, embarrassed, disgusted at yourself. You are soft, soft like them. You must be hard. You want to look away, but you know you might regret it for the rest of your life if you do.
You rest your hand on the bar. He moves forward, and touches it, like he did when you were just a child.
You know then he is going to die. You are twenty summers old. Your mother is nothing but a fond wisp of a memory, your sisters are falcons who soar through the sky. Your brothers are imprisoned. Your future could be rust, rust and dust.
Gregory, your father says, Gregory. My boy.
The tears fall faster, like a silent brushing of rain.
Rafe will be freed, I am sure of it, he says, and grips your hand tight. Look after each other. He is as good as your brother. Love him. But, you, you, Gregory, are my son. Never forget that.
Always, always, always, you say.
My boy, he murmurs. My good man.
The executioner drinks too much wine the night before. Richard swears that it was Sussex. Richard wants to slit Sussex’s throat. Rafe talks him down, later, after, when they sit in the inn where they once watched law students perform a play about Cardinal Wolsey. They all know that they would happily help Richard. Wyatt would sharpen the knife.
Christophe, who they all know will be gone by the morning, their fathers’ little French ghost-rat, promises to shit in his shoes, the cunt. They are too sombre to laugh, but it hits a nasty, vindictive spot in you which wants retribution for the horrors of today. For they were horrors.
It took―too many swings. It echoes in your ears; the hacking sound, the grunts of the axeman, the splashes of blood, the way your father―
You swallow. He once told you that he wished he’d been there when your mother’s death came, so he could have thrown it up against the wall and crucified it before it could have taken her.
You understand the feeling.
You are not a violent man, Gregory Cromwell, with your lordly hands and your light eyes. But you know you are now changed, you’ll never be that boy again.
(The other patrons of the inn sit back, away. They mourn Thomas Cromwell, too, because he was a friend to the poor, he was one of them, made of the same blood and shit that the Thames makes―even the hardest of men stopped jeering after the fifth blow of the axe. They sit far back because Gregory Cromwell’s face is splattered in blood. He looks like a soldier, like their fathers and grandfathers did when they returned from their war in France. Even those who rode with good king Henry, back in the days of Agincourt glory rather than the current ruin, had that look in their eyes.
They sit far back.)
Rafe takes your father’s position as as Secretary. Henry tells them all, once, that he misses his most faithful servant.
Whose fault was that, then, you say, and the urge to shit in Henry Tudor’s shoes, like Christophe promised, burns within you. Rafe looks at you, looks straight into your soul, like he has every day since that very first time, back in Austin Friars. Rafe smiles and brushes your hand. This is a brief foray back to London, from Launde Abbey, where you have been living with your wife and children.
You do not know it, but this is the last time you see Rafe, in this life.
The sweating sickness takes you, like has taken your mother and your sisters before you. It is not violent, or painful. It is eternal slumber. The death your father wanted for you. There is no violent, not a single drop of blood.
The fever brings you visions. The gentle touch of your mother, what you always think to have been her voice. Grace, in her peacock feathers. Anne, with her Greek book, holding your hand. Rafe, Rafe looking concerned with bright, sad eyes, murmuring prayers rapidly in English, Latin, Greek―is he? Has he―? (Your feverish mind cannot determine whether he is here or not.
He is here.)
You see others, too, others who you barely recognise. Anne Boleyn's dark face and glittering eyes. The sad cut of Jane Seymour's little mouth. Henry Tudor’s hair, the colour of fire. Anne of Cleves' dejected face.
Your father, home from Yorkshire in a storm. Your father, in the tower. Your father, the greatest man you ever knew. Rafe, your father, blurred together.
Of course there will be a revolution. You are making a nation of Cromwells.
- A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel