The dead man comes out of the Well with Two Buckets, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and stands looking up and down the street. He pulls up his hood, checks to see who is watching him, then strides towards the great gate of Austin Friars.

There is a new guard, who lays a hand on the visitor, and rifles through his wallet of papers. ‘Blade?’

The corpse stretches out his arms, pacific, allows himself to be patted down. An elder porter steps out. ‘We know the gentleman. In you go, Father Barnes.’

Inside they say, ‘His lordship’s expecting you.’ The corpse runs upstairs.

Go back ten years. Winter, 1526, the friar Robert Barnes is brought before Wolsey on suspicion of heresy. Through a frozen day, no light but the ice-light from standing pools, Barnes stands in an anteroom, clad in the black habit of his order. Beneath it, his flesh creeps. The cardinal, they tell him, is making his preparations. What kind of preparations could they be?

Christmas Eve last, at St Edward’s in Cambridge, Barnes preached at midnight Mass against the pomp and wealth of the church. It is impossible to do that, obviously, without preaching against the pomp and wealth of the cardinal.

Now it’s February: dies irae. As he waits the cardinal’s people watch him, and a low flame sputters in the grate. ‘Cold,’ Friar Barnes says.

‘Didn’t you bring your own firewood?’ There is a rustle from the onlookers, a snigger. Barnes moves, edging away from the cardinal’s ruffian.

In Wolsey’s room a great fire blazes. Barnes stands away from it, against the painted wall. ‘Prior Robert,’ Wolsey says. ‘Come where you feel the heat, man.’

He feels he has walked into a joke, set up to torment him. ‘I am not here on trial,’ he bursts out. ‘Your man Cromwell is out there, taunting me, talking about firewood.’

‘Of course you are not on trial.’ The cardinal is civil. His purple silks flash in air smoky with resins. ‘They say you are a heretic, yet it seems you have no difficulty with the teachings of the church. Your only difficulty is with me.’

Outside, a bell pierces frozen air. A man comes in with a tray of spiced wine. The cardinal pours it himself, from a jug gaudily enamelled with a Tudor rose. ‘So what do you want me to do, Barnes? You want me to leave off the state and ceremony which honours God, and to go in homespun? You want me to keep a miser’s table, and serve pease pudding to ambassadors? You want me to melt down my silver crosses, and give the money to the poor? The poor, which will piss it against the wall?’

There is a pause. After a time, faintly, Barnes says, ‘Yes.’

The ruffian Cromwell has come in behind him and is leaning against the door. Wolsey says, ‘I am sorry to see a scholar ruin himself. You must grasp that it is no use to avoid heresy, only to fall into sedition. Oppose the church, you will burn at Smithfield. Oppose the state, you will choke at Tyburn—and for present purposes, I am the church and I am also the state. But both fates are avoidable, if you repent now.’

Prior Barnes begins to shake. The interrogatory stare of the cardinal is enough to bring a man to his knees. ‘Your Grace, pardon me. I do no harm. Truly. I could not kill a cat.’

The man Cromwell laughs. Barnes blushes; he is ashamed of his own words. The cardinal says, ‘There are four bishops coming presently to examine you. All men who drown kittens for their pleasant recreation. For my part, I will be good to you, Dr Barnes—as much for the sake of your university as for yourself; my secretary Stephen Gardiner has been earnest with me in that regard. If you satisfy the bishops with your answers—please make them brief, and make them humble—I will recommend you do penance. But it must be public. Then afterwards there will be a good deal of fasting and praying, but you won’t mind that, will you? Of course you cannot continue as prior of your house. You must quit Cambridge.’

‘My lord cardinal—’

The cardinal turns his face, mild: ‘What? Drink up, Dr Barnes. And take the chance. You only get one.’

Ejected from the warmth, Barnes weeps like a woman, his face to the wall. Wolsey has not raised his voice, but he is broken by the encounter. Thomas Cromwell walks up to him. ‘Dry your tears. You can make a better story to tell among your friends. You can boast you gave bold answers. Confounded him.’

Barnes huddles into himself. He finds Cromwell incomprehensible. He looks like the kind of fellow who chucks drunks out of taverns.

On Shrove Tuesday, the friar abases himself on the flags at Paul’s, and Wolsey looks down on him from his golden throne. A score of great churchmen, in their vestments stiff and bright with gems, watch as Barnes kneels among certain merchants of the Steelyard, foreigners, who have been trapped by Thomas More with heretic books. They have been led through the streets on donkeys, set backwards in the saddle with their faces to the tail. Torn sheets of the writings of Luther are pinned to their coats, and now flap like grey rags. Lashed to their backs, as to his own, are faggots, dry sticks tied up for kindling—it is to remind them the stake is ready, if they offend again. Like Dr Barnes, they have recanted. If they backslide they will die in terror and pain, in public, and their ashes will be thrown on a midden.

Outside the church, a crowd has gathered. Their faces rain-blurred as if melting, their forms indistinct in winter light, men are tented under oiled canvases that seem to rest on their shoulders, making them a beast with many legs. ‘Stand aside,’ officers call. Big baskets are lugged and bumped into the centre of the crowd. Their contents are tipped out; they make a brave enough pile, heaped on a gridiron. One of the executioner’s apprentices sets a torch to them. His fellows poke at the books with iron bars, to let air into the pile, and under their skilled attention the pages ignite, despite the sheeting rain. The suspect men are herded together and driven round and round the fire, close enough to flinch from the heat, their faces jerking away as sparks fly into their eyes. The texts sigh as the paper curls, and disintegrate into a mute sludge.

Dr Barnes is sent to a friary in the city of London. His keeping is none too strait, and he is allowed visitors. One day Thomas Cromwell comes in. ‘I live near here. Come to supper.’ On the bench he drops a copy of William Tyndale’s Testament, single sheets loosely tied. ‘Arrived from Antwerp,’ he says. Barnes looks up. The cardinal’s heretic, he thinks.

‘I have twenty copies. I can get more.’

It is not long before the Bishop of London suspects where the Testaments are coming from. Another difficult interview: but with Bishop Tunstall, who is not by choice a persecutor. Barnes is not as overawed as he was by Wolsey. ‘How would I bring in Tyndale’s books? I go nowhere. I see no one.’

He gambles that Cromwell’s name will not be raised. Nor is it. Tunstall just shakes his head, and presently sends him to Northamptonshire. It’s a long way from any port. You can’t run from there, out of the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Nor can your fellow gospellers visit you, without all the countryside knows it.

One night Barnes steals out of the monastery where he is confined. Next day in his cell the monks find a letter, addressed to the cardinal, in which the miserable man says he means to drown himself. On the riverbank they find his folded habit. No body is found, but the poor sinner has made his intention clear.

And that’s the last of Robert Barnes: till the times change, and the Pope goes down, and he surfaces in a new England, his past failures washed away.

‘Come in, old ghost,’ the cardinal’s heretic says. ‘God’s work is marvellous. You bobbing up from your watery grave.’

‘You never tire of the jest,’ Barnes says.

‘But your feet not even damp!’

Barnes was never in the river. He swam up from his ruse somewhere in the Low Countries, and found friends, protectors, brothers in Christ. Years pass, he comes back proficient in many tongues; the world turns, and now he is a chaplain to the king, and carries his letters abroad. ‘And Tunstall gone up to Durham,’ his host says. ‘And my lord cardinal dead.’ He sits back in his chair. ‘And me a lord.’

‘Brought you these.’ Barnes lays engravings on the table. Fat Martin.

‘You spoil me,’ Lord Cromwell says.

In the older portraits, Luther is spiritual, attenuated. In the newer ones, porky. His tonsure grew out years ago. Sometimes he wears a beard. Barnes tells him, ‘When the papists burn his books they pin his picture on top, as if it were Martin himself. But the country people in Germany, the simple people, they believe his image can resist the fire.’

Lord Cromwell stabs one likeness with a finger. ‘I notice he wears a halo.’

‘That is not his choice. He does not set up as a saint. But it is wonderful, what the printers can do. All Europe knows his features. Every ploughboy.’

‘Is that a good idea?’

‘His life has been attempted many a time. Once,’ Barnes smiles, ‘by a physician who could make himself invisible.’

‘Oh, those,’ he says. Secret assassins with scalpels of air. ‘I have been looking over my shoulder for invisible men since Wolsey’s day. I’ve got ears like a fox and my head on a swivel. One sniff of a papist or a Yorkshireman and it swings right round and eyeballs him.’ He broods over the engravings. ‘Is his temper not improved?’

‘Worse, I would say. Vain and touchy as a woman.’

Luther fleshes out, since he wed an ex-nun. Marriage doesn’t have the same effect on our archbishop. Cranmer remains lean and pallid. ‘Because he must be worried,’ Barnes says. ‘In case the king finds out.’

‘The king already knows.’

‘Likely he does. But I mean, in case he finds himself in a position where he cannot deny the knowledge.’

Our king is vehemently opposed to clerical marriage. Cranmer wed when he was among the Germans, brought Grete back, keeps her secluded. Celibates are busy gossips; many would pull Cranmer down if they could. But then they have their own secrets, that do not bear telling: their mistresses, their children. He says, ‘We work it all between us, Cranmer and I. The archbishop tells Henry how to be good, and I tell him how to be king. We do not cut across each other. We try to persuade him that great kings are good kings, and vice versa.’

Barnes says, ‘Luther speaks frankly to rulers. Harshly, if need be.’

‘But in the end he defers to them: as he must.’ He examines Luther’s homely features, and lays him face-down. ‘Look, Rob, we do what we can do. We are in concord, Cranmer and myself. We are leaving Henry his rituals and he is giving us the scriptures. I think it is a good trade.’

‘It seems to me,’ Barnes says, ‘our prince thinks the purpose of scripture is to allow him to marry new wives. You claim he will license a Bible, so why does he delay?’

He sweeps the engravings together like a pack of cards and tucks them in his writing box. ‘Thomas More used to say, all translators crave something from their text, and if they do not find it they will put it there. The king will not let us use Tyndale’s version. We are obliged to pass it off, give other men the credit.’

‘If Henry is waiting for a translation with God’s thumbprint on it, he will wait a long time. Luther would labour three or four weeks on a single phrase. I never thought he would get his work out, and yet two years back at the book fair in Leipzig he was selling a complete Bible for under three guilders—and they have reprinted twice since then. Why should the Germans have God’s word, and not Englishmen? You may stare at the text till your eyes bleed, consume a stack of paper as high as Paul’s steeple—but I tell you, no word is the last word.’

It is true. No text stays clean. Yet one must part with it, send it to the printer. The trick is to get them to set the line right to the edge of the page. It does not make for a good appearance, but no white space means no perversion by marginalia.

‘You will forgive me if I am indignant,’ Barnes says. ‘I have been toiling these many years for the king, trying to patch up an alliance, trying to come into some agreement with the German princes and their divines—and the news from England comes, and you have cut the ground from under me.’

By cutting off the queen’s head. True. It is autumn, and Barnes is still shocked. ‘She, who believed in the Word.’

‘She was a Howard,’ he says. ‘You know what Howards believe in. Themselves.’

The Mirror & the Light