The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely waited in an antechamber in the royal palace. King Henry had sent for them because he needed their advice.
‘My lord,’ the Archbishop was saying, ‘let me tell you this. That self same law is being urged that might well have been passed to our disadvantage in the eleventh year of the last king’s reign – and would indeed have been passed if the troubled times hadn’t pushed its consideration aside.’
‘But what can we do to resist it now, my lord?’ said Ely.
‘We need to give it some thought. If it’s passed we stand to lose more than half our property because they’ll strip us of all the secular land that devout men have left to the Church in their wills. What it would mean is this: the expense of maintaining, in honour of the king, at least fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights: six thousand two hundred squires: a hundred well-endowed almshouses for the relief of lepers, the aged, and poor souls past manual working age: and in addition, putting a thousand pounds a year into the King’s treasury. That’s what the law would amount to!’
Ely gasped. ‘That would drain us.’
‘Cup and all!’ exclaimed Canterbury.
‘But what can be done to prevent it?’
Canterbury sighed. ‘The king is full of grace and good intentions.’
Ely nodded thoughtfully. ‘And a true lover of the holy Church.’
‘His behaviour in his youth wasn’t promising but the breath had no sooner gone out of his father’s body than his wildness, dying inside him, stopped dead. Yes, at that very moment, thoughtfulness, like an angel, came and whipped all the sin out of him, leaving his body like a paradise to receive and house heavenly qualities. Never did a man become a scholar so suddenly: never was anyone so swiftly reformed with such a current sweeping away of all faults: nor was Hydra-headed misbehaviour so swiftly ousted, and all at the same time, as it was from this king.’
‘We are blessed in the change,’ said Ely.
‘Just listen to him debate theology,’ said Canterbury. ‘You would be so impressed that you would want him to be made a bishop. Hear him in in political debate and you would say he had been studying it all his life. Listen to him talking about war and you would hear the sheer music of military strategy. Confront him with any complex political issue and he will untie the knots as though it were his garter. When he speaks the air, the most free of all things, stands still and people listen in silent wonder to his eloquence. Knowledge and experience has to be behind it, and yet it’s amazing to think about how his Grace could have acquired it because his trademark has always been the pursuit of vulgar and worthless things. His companions were illiterate, coarse and shallow-minded, he spent his time on debauchery, feasting and idle pursuits. No-one noticed any sign of serious study, any reticence, any distancing from low society and popularity.’
Ely looked thoughtful. ‘The strawberry grows underneath the nettle, and healthy berries thrive and ripen best beside fruit of lesser quality. And in the same way the Prince hid his serious side behind the veil of wildness which no doubt grew like the summer grass – fastest by night – unseen but developing securely.’
‘That must be right,’ said Canterbury. ‘The age of miracles has passed and so we have to find reasons for the way things happen.’
‘But my good lord,’ said Ely, ‘what are we going to do about mitigating the effect of this bill the Commons are determined to pass? Does his majesty support it or not?’
‘He seems indifferent or, if anything, leaning more towards us than the petitioners who oppose us. I have made an offer to his majesty on behalf of our Synod and with regard to some current issues which I’ve acquainted his Grace with, concerning France, of a bigger donation than the clergy has ever given to his predecessors.
‘How did he respond to this offer, my lord?’
‘His majesty reacted positively,’ said Canterbury, ‘ except that there wasn’t enough time for him to listen, as I could see his Grace would have wanted to, to the ins and outs of his valid claims to certain dukedoms, and generally to the crown and throne of France, descending from Edward, his great-grandfather.’
‘How were you interrupted?’ said his colleague.
‘At that moment the French ambassador requested an audience, and I think it’s taking place right now. Is it four o’clock?’
‘It is,’ said Ely.
‘Then let’s go in and find out what his message is,’ said Canterbury. ‘I can guess what it is before the Frenchman speaks a word of it.’
‘I’ll come with you: I look forward to hearing it,’ said Ely.