Welcome! Today is the day – the worldwide release of Frailty of Human Affairs, in paperback and on Kindle. You might be thinking – another Tudor book, Caroline? Is that what the world needs? Another book on Thomas Cromwell? Seriously? Has Hilary Mantel not done that man to death?
The world needs more Thomas Cromwell.
Why? I can tell you. Many books on Thomas Cromwell (all of wish I love and have nothing but respect for) tend to paint Cromwell as a hero or villain. I seek to do neither of these. My style is to let the readers decide what the character is, good or bad. Canna Medici was the villain and hero in her series, Mireya Centelles was a victim with an evil streak in Intense Professional Marquesa, and Luna Montgomery was an unlikely hero in the Secrets of Spain series.
This time, you have Thomas Cromwell, an already wealthy man who is on the verge of greatness, alongside Nicóla Frescobaldi (yes, Nicóla is a a man’s name in Italian), a sort-of Italian version of Cromwell, who have to do good and evil in order to create a queen in the form of young Anne Boleyn. Two characters, attendants to prominent masters in 1529, who are ready to set the world on fire. Literally and figuratively.
So here is the first chapter. The book is from the POV of both Cromwell and Frescobaldi, starting with Frescobaldi. Purchase links are at the bottom of the page.
Chapter 1 – May 1529
The most wondrous seecryts art hydden coequal from thyself
York Place, London
Nicóla could not master the sound of the powerful male footstep. As men ambled together along echoing halls, Nicóla made a gentle tap, even if wearing heavy riding boots. Every person who met Nicóla regarded him up and down, questioning his every ability. Today proved no exception.
London seemed such a grim place. Many people on the muddy streets appeared near death, and Nicóla knew death well. Rain fell constantly, cold when driven into his face, as if God despised all. Yet was it not spring? The decorated walls of York Place provided scant relief; the hallways appeared bleak and shadowy, candles constantly snuffed out by endless drafts of chilled wind. Weeks at sea, to arrive hither? Nicóla feared death might seize him atop the crest of every wave of the journey. Now, after muddy roads tortured the horses, finally, London, the fabled York Place. A potential new plot with Cardinal Wolsey beckoned. Nicóla could not think of those left behind; Nicóla knew enough grief to stop any heart.
Two guards, dressed in dark blue with golden adornment, stood at the arched doorway. Both relented their positions when the party of three approached. Their master entered first, followed by Nicóla and purple-clad Bishop Alessandro, papers in hand, ever the attendants to the powerful man who allowed them his patronage, who needed them to endure England, far from Rome.
‘His Eminence, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio.’
Nicóla acknowledged the short gentleman-usher who announced their presence, and glanced up and down his livery, the same as the guards; imported blue fabric, a decent price per yard of cloth. Following their master’s lead, Nicóla and Bishop Alessandro shuffled, faces forward, towards the end of the extraordinary room. No view presented through the broad windows; early evening darkness blotted out the world. Yellowing candles flickered in their numbers in the dusty but richly decorated room, which smelled so strange. Someone named the smell to be mould, something which seldom grew at home in Florence. The damp weather caused it here, the way it made cheese in cellars in Italy. Little yet made sense in this foreign land, yet the opulence of this office, golden tapestries, Turkish carpets, gold and silver plate laid out said much. Only fit for the richest man in England.
‘Lorenzo.’ Cardinal Wolsey did not stand as he addressed his long-time colleague, his face as grim as his tone. The old Cardinal appeared harmless enough, at least in Nicóla’s eyes. Ageing, a gift not bestowed to many, his fingers fat, jeweled rings constricting and bloating his hands. He wore the red robes of a cardinal, which Nicóla despised, the same as Campeggio. The Catholic faith gave Nicóla no comfort, even after going all the way to the Pope in need of salvation. Now, another cardinal with his fur-lined red robes and ugly red biretta cap sought to control Nicóla’s life.
Cardinal Campeggio took the offer of a seat across the grand desk of Wolsey, and Nicóla stood, head down, a few steps behind him with Bishop Alessandro. The others had visited the palace of the English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, not so Nicóla.
‘Most thanks for seeing me before I need to address the King.’ Campeggio spoke in accented English, his age evident in his voice. He stroked his long white beard, grown to commemorate the sacking of Rome eighteen months earlier, just as the Pope had done.
Wolsey sighed. ‘The King will delay no longer. The court’s decision on His Majesty’s annulment from Queen Katherine has been considered enough. Perchance God made me so unwell for the winter, a way of giving Henry a chance to reconsider. But now it is my job as both papal legate and Lord Chancellor to hear, in your words, what you think before we start proceedings. Henry asked for an annulment two years ago, and the tide of favour is starting to turn against me.’
Campeggio gestured to Nicóla for his papers, which Nicóla happily dropped on the desk. The correspondence on Wolsey’s desk sat in a neat pile, with perfect handwriting, next to a solid silver ink quill. A fastidious man. A lone orange sat on the desk; it was said Wolsey carried the orange at his nose, so not to smell commoners on the street.
‘So few papers for such a burden,’ Wolsey sniffed. ‘You are a man of well over fifty years, Lorenzo, yet you seem to have let your long years of experience fail you.’ His tone told Nicóla that Wolsey considered himself well superior to his Italian counterpart.
‘Thomas, you would not believe the state of Rome,’ Campeggio sighed and took the first page into his hands. ‘The sacking of Rome was extreme and prolonged. I got left behind as papal legate to Rome, and I lost everything. My own palace got destroyed, robbed of its jewels, its art. I was almost killed.’
‘Oh yes, we heard of Rome’s sacking. You have told me several times this past year. Remember our own envoy got assaulted when hoping to see the Pope,’ Wolsey replied, and the clean-shaven old man, his double chin shaking as he spoke, had an appearance of boredom.
‘The Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers assaulted the palace. Almost all were killed in broad daylight. If not for my friend …’ Campeggio paused and gestured at Nicóla… ‘I would be dead.’
Nicóla tilted his head enough to see beyond his brim of the soft cap of Campeggio’s servants’ livery, to witness, beyond the wooden throne of the great Cardinal, another man dressed all in black, and most tall. He took a few steps forward out of the darkness of the corner, closer to Wolsey. Nicóla caught his eye and the pair stared at one another, the man refusing to look away. He stood older than Nicóla by more than ten years. Power sat in the hands of old men in England. How did the young bear it? At home in Florence, the generations all fought for power.
The man’s wide golden eyes continued to stare with the slightest of frowns, and Nicóla remained still. Everyone regarded Nicóla up and down, took a second glance, but this man seemed the most threatening in his golden gaze. It was if he knew a secret so hidden that Nicóla felt faint at the thought of being discovered. This man wanted to recognise Nicóla but struggled. Secrets were Nicóla’s trade and currency, and Nicóla could never lose his biggest secret of all for no special reason. The dark man’s golden stare held remembrance, not secrecy.
Campeggio had seen the man in the shadows the whole time. ‘If it was not for my friend, I could not have talked with the Pope during his capture, nor his time in Orvieto after His Holiness’ escape. Nicóla delivered messages back and forth. Even then, it took months before the Pope decided to allow me hither, to come and decide on Henry’s future.’
‘Yes, but that is without relevance. You reached England eight months ago. If only your friend had brought us the papal dispensation we need from Rome,’ the dark man spoke with only mild curiosity on the subject, one hand now on Wolsey’s throne. His golden eyes continued to study Nicóla, but Nicóla refused to bow or look away. ‘Who are you? I have not seen you in the Cardinal’s envoy.’
‘A total stranger could you believe,’ Campeggio answered for Nicóla and coughed, the sound of a chronically ill man. ‘You know, with my poor eyesight, I am in need of young men. During the sacking, this young boy found me cowering as my palace burnt, and took me to safety, a home already sacked, but safe. I promoted him to the Pope, and His Holiness brought Nicóla into the Church, to live in the Apostolic Palace. Nicóla is not consecrated with holy orders, like my son Alessandro here. Nicóla has just arrived from Rome with supplies needed for this extended trip.’
‘You are here to rule on an annulment for King Henry and Queen Katherine, Your Eminence,’ the man continued in a smooth, even tone, and switched his gaze to Campeggio in the chair. ‘Anything less is a failure. I do not care why the Pope will not rule on the proposed annulment. We have the facts. No more delays; my master Cardinal Wolsey needs this completed.’
‘And we know how desperate King Henry is to marry Lady Anne,’ Wolsey added with a sigh. ‘They are involved in a three-year love affair. The King’s conscience is in a state of great suffering.’ The old Cardinal threw a gentle smile to Nicóla. For being known throughout Christendom as the most powerful cardinal of them all, and known as a corrupt tyrant, he certainly appeared placid. Just another heavy-waisted old man. ‘Before we continue, does your friend speak English?’
‘Parli inglese?’ the dark man asked, his voice suddenly as sharp as a blade.
Nicóla glanced up at the sound of Italian. ‘I speak fluent Italian, English, French, Spanish, Flemish, and Latin.’ At once, Cardinal Wolsey and his man showed surprise at Nicóla’s soft, lilting voice. ‘But I prefer that remained private. Bishop Alessandro beside me speaks Italian, English, with Greek, German, Portuguese and Latin, so we can deal with any duty.’
‘Gracious!’ Wolsey exclaimed. ‘What did a delicate man such as yourself do before entering the Church?’
Campeggio laughed; people often commented on Nicóla’s short and modest frame. ‘We call Nicóla ‘il reietto’ in Rome.’
Wolsey glanced to the dark man for a translation.
‘It means one who is an outsider, outcast, left over, abandoned. In this instance, based on the appearance of this man, petite, delicate, gentle, I believe they are saying like “the Waif”, someone small and useless.’ His voice growled deep, strong as his golden gaze. Nicóla could not look away, something about the man drew all eyes to him.
‘I have spent my life as a banker’s and merchant’s apprentice in Florence, Your Eminence,’ Nicóla replied to Wolsey.
Again the dark man had his gaze fixed upon Nicóla, enough to make any strong heart skip a little. ‘Who are you?’
‘Hush now, Thomas,’ Wolsey snorted. ‘He is Campeggio’s well-dressed, dashing, if not petite, hero of Rome.’
But the dark man would not so easily abate. ‘What is the make of your doublet and hose, Waif? Is that pale blue damask from Brussels? Are not churchmen bound to poverty, not opulence?’
‘Thomas,’ tumbled from Nicóla’s lips and he covered them with a hand, guilty of speaking out of turn.
‘We are both Thomas,’ Wolsey replied with a smile and gestured to himself and his attendant. ‘We know Bishop Alessandro Campeggio standing beside you, but tell us about yourself.’
‘You are Thomas Cromwella,’ Nicóla replied, his voice light and surprised, hands clasped together again. His sweet Italian accent added a vowel to the surname.
‘Everyone in Europe knows Thomas Cromwella,’ Campeggio commented from his seat.
‘You have an admirer,’ Wolsey jested to Cromwell.
No wonder the King’s annulment could not be settled; these two cardinals loved small talk which delayed work. But Nicóla wanted to speak to Cromwell personally, had come all this way in search of the man whispered of as “The Prince.”
‘Master Cromwella, you once worked as a servant in the Frescobaldi household in Florence. You worked as an apprentice to my father, Francesco. He spoke of you often.’
Cromwell’s golden eyes flared but he uttered nothing.
‘Do you know the name, Thomas?’ Wolsey asked, the old man finding it all rather amusing.
‘Perchance we ought to discuss the papal decision,’ Cromwell cut in with a cough.
‘Indeed,’ Wolsey sighed. ‘Lorenzo, your attendants can leave for your chambers downstairs.’
With a silent bow, Nicóla and Bishop Alessandro turned and left the cavernous room. Alessandro shuffled ahead of Nicóla in his purple bishop’s vestments, Nicóla’s calf-leather shoes making no sound on the wooden floorboards. But no sooner than the heavy doors closed behind them, they reopened, sending a short burst of light into the white stone hallway. There was Cromwell himself, following after Nicóla. Bishop Alessandro carried on along the hall, ignoring the Englishman.
With not a word spoken, Cromwell pulled Nicóla by the arm towards a window seat and pulled a great red curtain around the discussion. All done with his intense golden stare fixed upon Nicóla. But his touch sent a spark through Nicóla’s body, and it mattered none who this man thought he was; Nicóla pulled away in defiance.
‘You are the son of Francesco Frescobaldi?’ Cromwell asked in a whisper as they sat together against the cold glass laced with black lattice in diamond patterns, the Thames dark below them.
‘You knew my father,’ Nicóla began.
‘Most well!’ Cromwell’s golden eyes lit up, suddenly an angry face becoming a smile of pure happiness. ‘Your father saved my life when he took me off the streets and into the Frescobaldi household in Florence. I remember your father being well-furnished with daughters.’
‘I am the bastard child of my father’s annulled first marriage. Father had five daughters by his second marriage.’
‘What year were you born?’
Nicóla resisted the urge to cringe. Cromwell remembered so much detail, too much. ‘The year 1500.’
‘I see, before my arrival in Florence. How is your father now?’
‘My father went with God almost two years ago. Sadly, 1527 was not a positive year to be working in banking in Florence.’
‘Francesco did not meet a natural death?’ Cromwell swallowed hard at the thought.
‘No, in the chaos of the Holy Roman Emperor’s army rebelling in Rome, many took the chance to rise up against the Medici family and their power in Florence. My father got killed while visiting the Medici home at Poggio a Caiano. The palace got ransacked in the uprising.’
Cromwell dropped his gaze and shook his head, and slowly made the sign of the cross. Dark curls laced with silver hid his eyes for a moment. ‘It is uncommon for an only son to join the Church, especially since your father’s estate would be most prized. Your stepmother and sisters? The recent War of the League of Cognac was not kind on the Republic of Florence.’
‘They cannot be harmed now.’
‘So why have you come hither as part of Campeggio’s envoy?’
‘Did you not wander Europe once yourself?’
‘I did. Your father helped me learn Italian. I see he has passed his English skills onto you.’
Nicóla smoothed the pearl buttons on his blue doublet and took a deep breath. ‘There can be opportunities far and wide for a man who has seen war, who lives well and is educated. After Rome got sacked by the Emperor’s army, I decided to travel.’
‘Yet you found time to save the life of the papal legate of Rome and be praised by the Pope?’
Every word Cromwell spoke brought back memories of him in his youth, working at Frescobaldi manor during Nicóla’s childhood. ‘Luck. One day I saw a group of men fighting, and an old cardinal lying on the ground in agony. I went to his aid, and in return, Cardinal Campeggio kindly offered me a position in his household, at a time when I had lost my place with the fallen Medici family. Leaving for England was a final moment offer, so I grabbed hold.’
‘You have your father’s look about you. The rose-gold hair, and green eyes, though very dark skin. Not a large man like your father, though your English is as fine.’
Nicóla made sure no shoulder length rose-gold strands strayed from under his black cap. ‘It is said I am more like my mother, though I knew her not.’
‘Your father used to call me Tomassito, little Thomas, when I was young and homeless. I was privileged to work in the Frescobaldi household. I had no clothes on my back, and starving when your father saved me. Your father worked for the Medicis?’
‘Indeed, when seeking loans for clients, you always seek the help of the Medici family, one of the richest in Europe. I am sure you agree, Tomassito.’
Nicóla suspected Cromwell would not take kindly to the informal title, but instead, he gave a trifling smile, a tiny insight into Cromwell as a man. As a master of secrets, every detail brought prized information to Nicóla. Cromwell’s eyes did not leave Nicóla’s, a gesture which stirred nerves. For the last few years, Nicóla had sought to remain silent, behind a new master, out of sight as much as possible. Now a man, one known throughout Christendom as a common blacksmith’s boy who had risen above his station beside a cardinal, with a golden gaze ready to read the markings on one’s soul, had Nicóla cornered.
‘Cardinal Campeggio came to England unwelcome by many,’ Cromwell continued. ‘Campeggio is seen as weak by the King, and a natural ally to the Queen, and her nephew, the Roman Emperor. Campeggio may find his head departs his neck before long. Perchance we could be of assistance to one another.’
‘How, Master Cromwella? I am just a humble attendant.’ Yet Nicóla knew, as the child of the beloved Francesco Frescobaldi, Cromwell wanted collusion at once. Francesco had often spoken to Nicóla about Cromwell’s undying fealty to the family many years ago.
‘You may be a short man, a delicate man, but I am in need of people in all kinds of roles. I am sure you know how far the reach of Cardinal Wolsey extends.’
‘You are a wealthy man. Everyone knows that.’
‘Please, let us be friends. I shall do anything to be of service to the son of Francesco Frescobaldi. I loved your father, and I feel ashamed I knew not of his passing. We lost touch a while ago now, but I shall forever think upon him dearly.’
‘How could I be of service to you?’
‘Does it matter?’ Cromwell asked.
Nicóla smiled. ‘No, Master Cromwella. I suppose not. But Cardinal Campeggio is my master.’
‘And Cardinal Wolsey is my master. The King’s patience is at an end, and loyalties are being tested. Our masters must work together, and so must we, if we are to remain in success. It may be that someone with your accent has wandered into this palace at just the right moment. Go about your work for Campeggio, I will send for you when I am ready. A decision to claim scant of the English language is a wise choice. As I say, anything for the son of the kindest man I have ever known.’
‘Men speak of you, Master Cromwella. They say you are a fierce lawyer, a masterful accountant, a skilled orator. Men say you are corrupt; that you profit by Wolsey’s plots, with honest men’s money flowing into your pockets. Bribes are constantly accepted by you. You are not noble, just base, common born, and called “the double-minded man”.’
‘Mr. Frescobaldi, I play unfairly in an unfair world. Your father taught me how to survive. If you have worked for your father, and the Medici family, then you understand.’
Corruption. Bribery. Lies. Nicóla understood perfectly. Falling into Cromwell’s favour proved so easy. ‘Let us be friends, Master Cromwella.’