July 1540: the shock news of Cromwell's fall reaches the court of Margaret of Navarre, sister of Francis I of France and arguably the most cultured woman north of the Alps. She sends her courtier and poet, Nicolas Bourbon, an avid reformer with many friends in English court circles, to find out what is happening. What Bourbon discovers from members of Cromwell's family, his proteges and his enemies sets him what becomes a hazardous quest for the real man behind all the competing versions on offer. What emerges is a `biography in reverse' which takes Bourbon to various English locations, thence to the Antwerp business community, on to Florence and, finally, back to London and Putney, where Cromwell's remarkable career began.
Gradually, it is revealed not only how Cromwell became a remarkably astute businessman and student of politics, but also how he was won over to evangelical Christianity, possessing a profound loathing of Rome and all its works. Bourbon meets several of the people who influenced the young Cromwell and who can describe some of the scrapes he was prone to getting into. Yet always there remains for the inquisitive Frenchman an irritating dark area in his subject's life, a skeleton in a closet to which he can find no key.