SHAKING THE THRONE is available today! Today is part five of a ten-part series, letting you into the world of King Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, and his master secretary Nicóla Frescobaldi, as they embark on part two of THE QUEENMAKER SERIES.
Part one of the series, FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS, is out now, covering Cromwell and Frescobaldi in 1529 – 1533, SHAKING THE THRONE, covering 1533-1536, will be available worldwide on October 1st. NO ARMOUR AGAINST FATE shall cover 1537 – 1540 and will be released September 2019.
Up first, the synopsis –
November 1533 – Thomas Cromwell and Nicóla Frescobaldi have their queen on the throne. The Catholic Church is being destroyed as the Reformation looms over England. Cromwell has total power at court and in parliament, while Frescobaldi wins favour with the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy.
But England’s fate is uncertain. The nobles still despise Cromwell and his Italian creature. Anne has not given the king a son. Queen Katherine refuses to give up her title, and Thomas More and Bishop Fisher defy their king. The final Plantagenets think they should hold the throne, while the Catholics want Princess Mary named as heir.
England can be reformed, but Cromwell must dissolve all the monasteries and abbeys, and with the King on his side, the plan to change religion will sever heads. Queen Anne is losing Henry’s love, but Cromwell could suffer if Anne loses her crown. Frescobaldi creates a daring plan to replace Anne and regain the Pope’s favour, but Cromwell must execute the plans on his own. Schemes will go astray and the wrong heads will be severed to satisfy a vengeful sovereign.
Kings will rise, Queens shall fall, children will perish, and the people of England will march in a pilgrimage to take Cromwell’s head, but Frescobaldi will have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Chapter 1 – November 1533
timeth turns our lyes into trouths
Austin Friars, London
‘Catholic, Protestant, all makes no matter; for I shall die a sinner for the justice I administer.’
Nicòla’s rose-gold eyelashes fluttered, such was the strength in which she held her green eyes closed. Tears perched upon her lashes, waiting to ripple down her dark olive cheeks.
‘God gives us the power of His spirit, and the sword of His word. True contrition shall deliver souls to heaven.’
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, knelt opposite to Nicòla, his purple robes flowing around the carpets beneath their knees. His hands closed over Nicòla’s clasped in prayer. Behind the altar was Nicòla’s bedroom, or more precisely, the bedroom of Thomas Cromwell, her master. Before them; William Tyndale’s English Bible, handwritten by the man himself. Also, Martin Luther’s German translation, and, for Nicòla’s comfort, a Catholic Latin bible. Cromwell may have yearned for Protestant reform, yet Nicòla’s soul, away from the ears of her master, struggled with reformation.
Cranmer and Nicòla were firm friends, yet in times of prayer, in times of struggle, Cranmer also proved himself a man of true piety, patient with Nicòla’s fear for her soul.
‘Can contrition and repentance truly come to me?’ Nicòla whispered, one tear making its defiant roll down her cheek.
‘At the heart of the Christian faith, contrition shows that a soul is ready for repentance. The old religion and the new; it makes no matter, my child. Absolution will come through the regret you now feel.’
‘Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I know you came yesterday for my need to confess and repent, but again I feel burdened with my deeds.’
Nicòla felt Cranmer’s hands move against hers, a gentle gesture. She opened her eyes a little to see him before her, his eyes closed, his dark hair over his face a touch. While Cranmer preached to king and country about the virtue of reformation in England, in private, Cranmer allowed Nicòla her need to adapt from Catholic idolatry and into the light of God.
‘Oh, Thomas,’ she whispered as she closed her eyes again, forgetting to address him formally. ‘I walked into the Tower of London, my stride strong, my will determined. I walked into the cell of Elizabeth Barton and I struck her across the face. Not a word. I watched as others hurt her, beat her, kicked her. I watched as others tortured her accomplices. I interrogated them; I screamed in their faces. The power I feel, disguised as a man, the favourite man of Thomas Cromwella, the most powerful man in this realm, makes me a monster. I watched as men were put to the rack, I heard their screams and yet I did nothing. How can God want me to do this?’
‘Elizabeth Barton is a heretic, a traitor. She is a traitor to her faith. Those men who stand accused beside her represent all the corruption and abuse of the Church itself.’
Cranmer’s hands shook over Nicòla’s, and she opened her eyes again. Cranmer stared back at her. ‘God gave Barton and her men the chance to repent, Nicòla. She claims to speak with God, to hear His words. Barton claims Mary Magdalene writes letters to her. She claims God tells her the future. Barton sins so deeply that there can be no salvation for her soul. They have forced you to torture Barton. Someone must do God’s will.’
‘What if Barton is like me?’ Nicòla asked. ‘I am a fantastical creature. The mind of a man trapped in a woman’s body. That is how I am explained. But I am a woman! You know well the frailty of my affairs. What if Barton is the same? A woman, confused by her calling in life, used by that heretical Friar Bocking and the others in Canterbury?’
‘Whatever the cause, Barton speaks. She spoke to the King himself, prophesying his death. That is treason on its own. She taints the minds of influential men. Perchance she is ill in the mind; perchance we shall never know. But what Elizabeth Barton has done is use God’s word against the King, against many of us. That is treason. That is heresy. She calls for us to be Catholic and to stop religious reform. She wants to keep England in the darkness.’
‘And for that, I must sin, abuse bodies, harm others, alongside Cromwella, alongside Ralph Sadler, Thomas Wriothesley, Richard Rich. We cloak ourselves under Cromwella’s name and commit sins.’
‘Let us pray. Mighty Lord, you have fashioned the universe, and brought order out of chaos. We thank you for bringing order to our lives. Help us respect the authorities you have established, for the sake of the world and for the Church. Guide us by your Spirit to serve Your will, and give us the courage needed by early reformers, so that in our time we may confess our faith in your Son Jesus Christ, in whose gracious name we pray. Amen.’
‘Amen.’ Nicòla made to cross herself, but stopped; for that was a Catholic gesture, not Protestant. But after years by Cromwell’s side, it remained a habit.
The pair wandered away from the corner of the enormous bedroom, past the bed where she and Cromwell slept in sin many nights, to the fire burning in silence beside two plush chairs and a table for wine. Nicòla leaned on the back of one chair and sighed.
‘Thank you, Thomas,’ she said, her Italian accent rolling the letters of his name. ‘I fear the truth of my sex makes me weak.’
‘Even the strongest man can be averse to torture,’ Cranmer replied, folding his hands together. ‘There is no need to feel ashamed after committing violence. We broke a country away from the Catholic faith. Violence happens all over Europe for this reason.’
‘King Henry looks to you as archbishop, to Cromwella as chief minister, to bring these changes.’
‘It is Cromwell who broke the Catholic Church in England. All must bow to Henry now. I owe my position in this country solely to Cromwell. I owe my life to Cromwell.’
Poor Thomas Cranmer. The Lutheran faith of the German States stated clergy did not need to be celibate, so he married Margarete in Nuremberg and shipped her to England in a crate. Now they had a son, also named Thomas, and both mother and son still lived in fear for their safety, hidden from the King until Henry decided if English priests could marry. Margarete moved often, so no one knew much of her. She lived in the Austin Friars nursery with her son at present, along with Jane, Nicòla’s daughter by Cromwell, already three years old. But Margarete could tarry nowhere long, lest be arrested, the archbishop likewise.
‘As long as we have the favour of Master Cromwella, we are safe,’ Nicòla replied. ‘Have you been at the King’s side recently?’
‘Yes, just yesterday,’ Cranmer said and invited himself to sit down in Cromwell’s private room. Few got into Cromwell’s huge bedroom; even the maids scurried with fear. ‘There is an anger in Henry, I must confess. His new daughter vexes him with anger, but also much confusion. His marriage to Queen Anne is sound, in both God’s eyes and the law. We defeated the Pope. Yet God gave Henry and Anne a daughter, not a son for the throne.’
‘Henry believes that God has given him the Princess Elizabeth to punish him for his sins against the former Queen Katherine.’
Cranmer nodded as he watched the fire. ‘Queen Anne has been out of confinement after the birth for a month now, yet the King barely goes to her. She wishes to make a son as fast as God can deliver another pregnancy.’
‘Surely Henry loves his new daughter. One of the ugliest babies I have laid my eyes on, God forgive me, but still Henry’s child.’
Cranmer stifled a laugh. ‘You have visited with Her Majesty?’
‘I have, a few days past. Cromwella suggests I call on the Queen often now she is back in London instead of Greenwich. Anne delights in her daughter; they even keep the child in Anne’s rooms, not the royal nursery! What the child lacks in looks she makes up for in her mother’s love. Cromwell spends much time in private with Henry, while Henry urges for further legislation, to make the Act of Supremacy legal and binding. Soon we shall all have to swear an oath that the King rules the Church, not the Pope.’
‘And we shall be better for it.’
‘We need no more of the Pope.’ Nicòla remembered Pope Clement in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. Gone was the handsome man of his youth who inspired her lust. He had forsaken her now, thought her a heretic. The Pope’s bastard son, Nicòla’s husband, had also ceased in demanding her to return home to Florence. At age three and thirty years, Nicòla had more than destroyed her Catholic soul. It was almost twenty years since her love affair with Pope Clement, then only Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, and even four years since she married his depraved Moorish son. Without God giving Nicòla a home, Cromwell allowed her to live safe in England.
‘How is Thomas?’ Cranmer asked after Cromwell. ‘For I have barely seen him.’
‘We are much busy at court. Master Cromwella is working on the Act of Succession, so Princess Elizabeth can be heir to the throne, and the Act of Supremacy, recognising Henry’s religious authority. Not only is Cromwella the King’s Chief Minister, set above all others, he runs the Exchequer, the Jewel House, the Hanaper, he sits in Parliament, and now Henry has made him the Steward at Westminster Abbey, now also Surveyor of the King’s Woods! One man can only do so much. We have only so many clerks, messengers, attendants…’
‘And spies.’ Cranmer smiled. Everyone knew of Cromwell’s creatures. Nicòla, “the Waif” was the chief creature of the English court.
‘There are rumours of rumblings in Ireland. The Dublin councillors are not happy with the Catholic Church’s destruction. Many northern lords are also complaining. Cromwella must see to quelling both factions. He seeks the head of Elizabeth Barton on a spike. Cromwella seeks the heads of Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher. He seeks to push Bishop Gardiner from court for good. Cromwella is the King’s Chief Minister and Secretary of State. And every nobleman at court hates him for it.’
‘I am the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church in England, under His Majesty, of course. There are bishops, archdeacons, priests, all who wish to defy me. I know what it is to be a common man raised so high all hate him. I lack Cromwell’s political knowledge, his deftness in his choices and movements, his ability to take on so many tasks at once. You and he have that art of memory skill. You speak Greek do you not, Nicòla?’
‘Yes, Master Cromwella taught me Greek last month while we were away from court.’
‘The whole language, in one month?’
‘That is Ioci, Archbishop. It is the powerful skill of remembering all. That is how Master Cromwella can recite the New Testament from memory alone.’
Cranmer shook his head. No one in England studied Ioci, the ancient Greek method of remembering everything. ‘You know of the Greek expression, “polymath.” It means to have the ability in many subjects, having the complex knowledge to solve many complicated issues, using many bodies of work all learned by one man.’
‘You believe Master Cromwella is a polymath?’
‘With no doubt. Cromwell can think of parliamentary legislation and religious reform, but be…’
‘Torturing heretics in the Tower, despite being a man of almost fifty years,’ Nicòla finished the sentence.
‘I have passed forty years and I could not sustain such a life. There are no exciting soldier-of-fortune stories in my history,’ Cranmer smiled inwardly. ‘I worry for Cromwell, Nicòla,’ he continued. ‘He rises so high; he works so often.’
‘Master Cromwella believes his reforms to England are a legal matter, using religion as a cover to change a country. He leaves the religious needs of the realm in your good hands. His soul seems at ease, despite all he handles.’
‘Yet, he hides you in his life. A woman, dressed as a man, works in the royal court as Cromwell’s master secretary. A woman married to another man. You violate this country’s social conduct laws, Nicòla. They should remove you to your husband in Florence. You, by right, should be Duchess of Florence, yet are a lowborn man’s attendant.’
‘You, sir, are Archbishop of Canterbury yet your wife serves in my daughter’s nursery, along with your son. King Henry could topple you with one word. I could be toppled also, but while Cromwella does whatever Henry wishes, then I feel safe. I know, every morning when I wake, that they could throw me back in the Tower where I was years ago. This is the world we have created, Archbishop Cranmer; a dangerous world, even for ourselves. As Machiavelli once wrote, “there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second.” But we must pay a hefty price for owning such power.’
‘Now I have annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine and the Boleyns have their queen…’
‘Anne is the Cromwella queen, not the Boleyn queen. They may think they have power with Anne on the throne, her father as the Lord Privy Seal, but we know Master Cromwella holds the power.’
‘Well indeed. Now that marriage is real in law and before God, what of your marriage? Will there be an inquiry into that?’
‘And risk telling the world I am hidden as a man?’ Nicòla brushed her newly trimmed rose-gold hair behind her ears. She wore her all-black Cromwell livery, even a black overgown lined with black fur to stay warm in the brisk late autumn. Her brighter clothes, which gave away hints of her feminine nature, had disappeared away again at Cromwell’s instance.
‘I can, as Archbishop of Canterbury, rule that Thomas Cromwell may take a foreign wife, one in need of an annulment. As the new marriage would be in England, with an English man, I can rule on the wife’s annulment. What the Pope of Rome says matters none.’
‘I married in the eyes of God, in the Apostolic Palace, before the Pope himself. I said the words before God.’
‘Did you not swear before God to marry Cromwell too, before King Henry and his Anne?’
‘And you consummated your marriage to Alessandro de’Medici?’
‘No. Alessandro is living in Florence happily with his head mistress, and the other girls. To gain an annulment, Alessandro would be the one to ask. A wife cannot petition for an annulment from a marriage.’
‘If your husband were to ask for an annulment, then your marriage would fall short and be ended.’
‘But Alessandro needs to apply to the Pope. The Pope will not grant his son an annulment.’
‘I can try to help you, Nicòla,’ Cranmer continued. ‘We can canvas the scholars of Europe… as we did for Henry and Anne.’
‘Henry is a king. I am a whore.’
‘Cromwell wants your marriage annulled, or at least ruled invalid.’
‘I had carnal relations with the Pope, my father-in-law, when Alessandro was still in the nursery. Surely that rules the marriage invalid.’
‘Yes, but it would also be spoken of, in front of the Convocation of Canterbury, before I could rule the marriage invalid.’
‘And we cannot see the King’s Chief Minister in the company of the Pope’s whore,’ Nicòla sighed.
‘I do not think I can help you without revealing your nature to the world, Nicòla, no matter how much Cromwell wants it done. We could try a secret ruling of the Convocation…’
‘But there are no secrets in the English court, parliament or convocation,’ Nicòla scoffed. ‘There are so many spies, so it would never work.’
‘If Cromwell’s Act of Supremacy laws are in effect, perchance all we shall need is the King’s consent. He knows of your fantastical nature and could rule in your favour.’
‘Mayhap once we have a legitimate son in the cradle we can ask,’ Nicòla suggested.
The sound of a distant tolling bell echoed through the private chambers. Master Cromwell had returned to Austin Friars; a rare event at present.
‘I shall retire to my private rooms,’ Cranmer said and eased himself from the warm chair. ‘Please, thank Cromwell again for letting me tarry at Austin Friars to visit my wife. If they found Margarete and baby Thomas, we would all be in grave danger.’
‘Margarete is welcome hither until after Christmas, then we shall move her out to Cromwell’s new house in Dewhurst for a few months. We shall keep your new family safe.’
Cranmer allowed Nicòla to kiss his ring and he shuffled along the darkened hallway, his purple robes smooth on the bare floor.
Nicòla knew Cromwell would go to his library and offices, where Ralph, who ran Austin Friars, would probably still be working. Ralph had been in Cromwell’s care since the age of seven and now had a baby with his new wife Ellen. Both Ralph and Cranmer had sons named Thomas. Had Nicòla’s last baby not been stillborn, there would have been three babies named Thomas in the nursery with baby Jane.
Nicòla sat before the fire and waited; they would flood Cromwell with papers from the lawyers and clerks still working in the offices on the ground floor. But it was not long before someone rushed into the private rooms with wine and cheese on a silver tray. Rather than a maid, it was Ellen, Ralph’s wife. She was one of the rare few who knew of Nicòla’s truth and thus allowed in the private bedroom.
‘Master Frescobaldi.’ Ellen bobbed in a curtsy as she placed the tray on the small table before Nicòla. Despite knowing of her sex, and after time to get used to the notion, Ellen still choked a little when calling Nicòla “Master.”
‘Mrs. Sadler,’ Nicòla said with a smile. ‘Cromwella and Ralph are in the library, I assume?’
‘Yes, Master Cromwell and Mr. Sadler appear to be in much cheer. I thought to bring this tray, as Master Cromwell will retire shortly. I shall tell him you are hither.’
‘Tell them to take their time,’ Nicòla smiled. ‘Archbishop Cranmer has retired for the night.’
Ellen curtsied again and rushed from the room. Nicòla sipped the sweet red wine and closed her eyes. The image of kicking Elizabeth Barton in the face flashed before her and she quickly opened her eyes.
The door to the chambers opened and Cromwell appeared in the bedroom moments later. He tossed his black bag and hat on the Turkish carpets and dashed over to Nicòla, and he pulled her into his embrace the moment she stood up to him. Only when he finally ended their kiss, could she see how tired he appeared. ‘Tomassito…’ she began.
‘I know, they forced you to interrogate Barton and her heretic bastards without me today, and I thank you for your pains. Ralph has already told me Barton gave away no news?’
‘No, she maintains she speaks with God,’ Nicòla replied, still in his embrace.
‘I could not leave the King today. He greatly needs every detail about his son’s wedding.’
‘Well indeed, but I shall not be the one to remind the King of his son’s illegitimacy,’ Cromwell said, and guided his love back to her seat. He sat down across from her and grabbed the wine. ‘Henry loves that boy, named for him,’ Cromwell sighed. ‘A young son, just fourteen years and now marrying a noble girl. If only we could make him legitimate.’
‘If any person can, you can,’ Nicòla replied.
Cromwell raised his eyebrows in agreement as he gulped the wine, most unlike him. The silver streaks in his dark curls caught the light of the fire. ‘I have thought to make a law, designed so they need no heir of the English throne to be born legitimate, and then Henry could choose his successor.’
‘That could spark civil war!’
‘And I know it, Nicò. Still, I must keep all options open. The wedding at Westminster shall be grand indeed. Lady Mary Howard may not wish to marry Henry Fitzroy, but it pleases her father, old Norfolk. It pleases Lady Mary’s brother, for he and Fitzroy are close friends. Fitzroy may be a bastard son, but he is the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and Lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Henry loves his son. Even the King of Scotland speaks highly of Fitzroy. Naturally, our new queen hates the wedding plans. Fitzroy, and Katherine’s daughter, the former Princess Mary, are equally hated by Anne.’
‘But we draft laws so baby Princess Elizabeth can rule over Henry’s other children,’ Nicòla argued.
‘That does not stop Anne from complaining,’ Cromwell said and gulped his wine again. ‘She has been queen but six months and already finds fault in the role, and in her own world. I do loathe that woman.’
‘Pray to God we get a legitimate son in the royal cradle and all will not matter,’ Nicòla replied.
‘But what of you, my love. What of Jane?’
‘Our daughter is well. It has only been a week since I last saw you, Tomassito.’
‘I hate when we must work apart. A week is too long to be apart from my most wonderful and adored wife.’
‘I am glad you are so assured in our marriage.’ Nicòla swore to marry Cromwell before God and the King, but that did not overrule her lawful marriage in Italy.
‘And I also am assured in the abilities of you, my master secretary. After the Fitzroy-Howard wedding, we shall travel to Greenwich Palace to prepare for the royal Christmas.’
‘We prepare The Company of Merchant Adventurers of London banquet on your behalf. All have replied they will attend, except the governor.’
‘John Hutton is most ill. Stephen Vaughan shall take his place as governor of the Company when Hutton is dead. Tis a shame Vaughan shall not return to England this year.’
‘I know he is your closest friend, but Vaughan is safe in Antwerp. He need not get burned as a heretic for his Protestant views.’
‘England is my country now. They shall burn no more Protestants. Those days are gone.’
‘Now we shall burn Catholics,’ Nicòla replied, unable make eye contact with Cromwell.
‘No, I shall burn no one. I shall take the heads of heretics and traitors though.’
Now Nicòla raised her gaze to meet the double-minded man’s golden eyes. Cromwell softened in his position in the chair and took her hand. ‘I received word from Gregory today.’
‘Is he well?’ Nicòla thought often of Cromwell’s only son; a boy of female favour and not as intelligent as his father.
‘Very well, and happy to move to Dewhurst after Christmas. He shall enjoy being tutored there, and Cranmer’s wife and son shall be there for months. Gregory shall be fourteen in a few months. I shall soon need to find him a wife.’
‘Must you, Tomassito?’
‘A pre-contract only. Do you wish to hear scandalous talk?’
Nicòla noticed a twinkle in Cromwell’s beautiful golden gaze. ‘What have the creatures heard?’
‘An affair at Wulf Hall, one of the Seymour households. Catherine, wife of the eldest son Edward, has been sleeping with her father-in-law, old Sir John Seymour. Such disgrace! Two of the Seymour girls, Lady Jane and Lady Elizabeth, have been called home from Anne’s court. Now Edward’s two sons may not be his heirs, but perchance his own half-brothers!’
‘Idle talk, surely.’
‘It harms Edward’s chances of rising at court, with Sir John out of royal favour. A decent man, by all accounts. But no longer.’
‘As if King Henry cares for men being faithful,’ Nicòla scoffed.
‘We need Queen Anne pregnant before Henry finds himself a mistress. That is all we need to worry about for now.’
‘Such is the glory of ruling England,’ Nicòla replied.
Cromwell took Nicòla’s hand again, and she looked at his reddened knuckles, a sign of interrogating people in the Tower. ‘We shall rule together, you shall see.’
SHAKING THE THRONE, the second edition in the Queenmaker trilogy, is now available in paperback and Kindle
FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS, the first edition in the Queenmaker trilogy, is available worldwide in paperback and on Kindle now.
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