D. K. Wilson
The Traitor’s Mark
10 June 1540
He ran up the steps – a man in a hurry. Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Great Chamberlain, Vicegerent in Spirituals, the most powerful person in England under the king, mounted the long flight of stairs to the Whitehall Council Chamber two at a time. He was late for the meeting and, though he was not troubled by the thought of keeping his fellow councillors waiting, tardiness, in itself, was a thing he abhorred. It was a mark of disorganised, inefficient or blatantly lazy minds and Cromwell prided himself on not being prey to any of these vices.
There was good reason for his delay on this occasion. He had spent the six hours since dawn organising the carefully accumulated evidence that would strike down his enemies, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. For months he had been galled by the open hostility and covert intrigues of the men trying to undermine King Henry’s confidence in him. These conservative elements, these dullards, these visionless men had set themselves to stop England’s development towards a truly Christian commonwealth, independent of Rome, purged of clerical corruption and illumined by the newly Englished word of God. The need to defend himself and organise his counter-attack had taken up valuable time – time that could more profitably have been employed in continuing the legislative programme revolutionising the kingdom. But now he had all the evidence he needed. Lord Lisle, Governor of Calais, was, at last, in the Tower and revealing to his interrogators the antics of the brood of papist vipers causing havoc in the English port under his command. With Bishop Sampson of Chichester and the royal chaplain, Dr Wilson, also under investigation for illicit communication with Rome, the long, secret campaign was over. He could now strike at his conciliar enemies before they were ready to strike at him. Cromwell bustled through the anteroom and its throng of petitioners. At his approach, the door to the Council chamber was hastily thrown open.
As soon as he crossed the threshold he knew something was wrong. His colleagues were not seated around the long table, awaiting his arrival in order to commence the day’s business. They stood around the room in groups of two and three. At one side, by the oriel window, stood the captain of the guard and three of his men. Cromwell took in the situation at a glance. Scarcely pausing, he strode purposefully towards his chair at the head of the table.
Norfolk blocked his path. ‘You are no longer a member of this board!’ His eyes glared the hatred he had only rarely troubled to conceal.
Cromwell scowled. ‘Stand aside, My Lord.’
‘A Howard does not yield place to an upstart.’ The duke raised his hand to Cromwell’s chest and pushed.
Cromwell struggled to retain his self-control. ‘So now we see you clearly for the arrogant papist you are. Guard, arrest this man. I have evidence here of his treasons.’ He held up the sheaf of papers he was carrying.
The captain looked anxiously from one to the other. It was Bishop Gardiner who turned to him and ordered sharply. ‘Why do you wait, man? You know your duty. You have your warrant. Execute it.’
The captain walked around the table and stopped two paces from Cromwell.
‘My Lord of Essex, I am here with his gracious majesty’s warrant to arrest you and take you into custody on charges of high treason.’
‘I? High treason? Who dares to charge me, the king’s most devoted subject …’ Cromwell was trembling with rage and fear. ‘It is not I who have betrayed the king’s trust.’ He brandished his evidence.
Norfolk snatched the papers from him. ‘Too late,’ he sneered. ‘His majesty has been fully informed of your disloyalty.’
‘He knows how you have been usurping royal power these last years.’ The speaker was Sir Thomas Wriothesley, one of the king’s secretaries.
Cromwell frowned. ‘So, they have corrupted you, have they, Thomas? How soon you have forgotten who raised you to your present position.’
Gardiner added his taunt. ‘His majesty now knows who is the biggest heretic in England.’
Cromwell watched as all the others gathered round in a circle. He was politically astute enough to know that his enemies had grasped the initiative. The neutrals on the Council would now fall into line behind them. He could only stand trembling with impotent rage, as the captain seized him by the arm.
‘Wait,’ Norfolk ordered. With a leering smile of triumph, he stretched out a hand to grab the gold chain of office round Cromwell’s neck. Cromwell’s fingers fastened round his wrist. For a long moment the two rivals glowered at each other. In that moment the fate of England was decided. Norfolk broke free, seized the symbol of Cromwell’s authority and tugged with such force that one of the links snapped. Wriothesley – if there was treachery in the room it was, surely, his – was instantly on his knees unfastening the Garter insignia from Cromwell’s leg.
‘Take the heretic!’ Gardiner ordered.
Rough hands grasped the Earl of Essex’s arms. He was marched from the room. For ten years Thomas Cromwell had virtually ruled England. His destruction had taken fewer than three minutes.
In God’s name, Master Thomas, come and get me out of this hell-hole. The woman will tell all.
The words were scrawled in what appeared to be charcoal on a crumpled scrap of paper, roughly folded. I looked up at the messenger who stood before me in my parlour. She was, I guessed, about eighteen, simply but tidily dressed, her clean apron covering a brown woollen kirtle. But her clothes were awry. Strands of dark hair had escaped from her plain linen coif. Her brown eyes were reddened with crying and she kept dabbing them with a kerchief. She had also been running, for she was sorely out of breath.
‘Please sit down,’ I said as calmly as possible. ‘What’s your name?’
She lowered herself on to a joint stool. ‘Adriana, an’t please you, Master, but people call me Adie.’
‘Well, Adie.’ I gave what I hope was a reassuring smile. ‘What is all this about? What has befallen my servant?’
‘Oh, the poor man! It was terrible. I thought at first he was dead, like George.’ Her voice tailed away into a sob.
Bart close to death! Now I shared the anxiety of this unexpected visitor to my house in Goldsmith’s Row. I poured a little ale into my own beaker and handed it to her. ‘Drink this,’ I said. ‘Take your time.’
As she sipped, I prompted. ‘I sent Bart out this forenoon with a message to a house in Aldgate, close by the Saracen’s Head.’
The woman nodded. ‘Aye, for Master Johannes.’
‘He arrived safely, then?’
‘Yes. I suppose so.’
‘You don’t seem very sure.’
‘I was upstairs with the children. When all the noise started, I shut the door. I was frightened.’
‘Shouting, banging – like several men arguing, fighting.’ She was on the verge of tears again. I had to wait while she took some deep breaths and regained control.
‘And this happened in the house?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘Yes, in the inner room, close by the stairs. That’s why it sounded so loud. Perhaps I should have gone down.’ She sniffed and rubbed a hand across her nose. ‘But I was scared for the children.’
‘Of course. I’m sure you did the right thing … And then?’
‘Well, Master, I waited a long time … till everything was quiet. Then I went down the stairs … very carefully … and looked. It was terrible. Blood everywhere … I didn’t know …’
‘Whose blood?’ I demanded quickly, before the girl could be overwhelmed by fresh weeping. ‘Has Bart …’
‘Oh no, Master. It was young George … Master Johannes’ prentice … or assistant … or pupil. I don’t know what you’d call him. Master Johannes found him at one of the printers what works outside the City. He said the boy had talent … Oh, poor George! Lying on the floor, he was … all acrumpled … blood on his tunic. I didn’t know what to think … or do. I turned to go back upstairs … fetch the children … get them away. Then the other man – your man – called out to me. Slumped against the wall, he was. Groaning. Holding his head. “Help me,” he said. “For the love of God, help!” But I daren’t move. Well, I didn’t know what to think. If he’d had a fight with George and … done that to him …’
‘Bart wouldn’t harm anyone,’ I said.
Adie took a long gulp of ale, followed by a deep, sighing breath. ‘Yes, Master. He tried to explain what happened. Said he and George had been attacked by four strangers. Said they’d beaten George all over … then stabbed him because he wouldn’t tell them where Master Johannes was.’
This time I let the tears gush. I brooded about Bart Miller. If there was one man in London sure to discover trouble wherever it was lurking, that man was my business assistant. I could not call him my apprentice because he had not joined my household to learn the goldsmith’s craft, but he had a quick head for figures, was diligent in keeping the books tidily and was very reliable – when he was not getting himself into unnecessary scrapes.
‘What happened next?’ I asked, when the sobs and sniffs had subsided. ‘Where is Bart now?’
‘Locked up in Aldgate gatehouse, thanks to our stupid constable!’
‘Then we must get back there quickly. You can tell me the rest of the stor ...