Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Chapters 1-2 – Falcons and Crows, September to December 1535
How much detail do you want? How much can I remember of this dense interweaving of accepted historical fact and Mantel’s fictionalised speculation concerning the inner psychological workings of the major players? For a few pages we get a kind of Previously in Wolf Hall…. The novel of that name ended on the journey towards the house of the Seymours, and this one begins during the visit. We get a couple of Wolf Hall’s best lines, including the reply that Thomas Cromwell gets when he complains that in his portrait Hans Holbein has made him look like a murderer: ‘Didn’t you know?’

Is Cromwell a murderer? Not exactly, despite his reputation. But he is a fixer, and many of the things that he fixes mean that people have to die. Anyone who has read Wolf Hall knows this already, but Mantel spends most of these first two chapters establishing just how much power he has, and what a gifted political operator he is. Not only that: he is a master of presentation, something dear to the hearts of 21st Century political commentators – and to most of the class making up the people who read this kind of novel. It’s no surprise to find Mantel teasing out not only how Cromwell operates, but how he calculates the effect of what he does – and, crucially, the way that he does it – on those who get to know about it. He doesn’t deny that he wouldn’t let the jury in Thomas More’s trial eat until they had pronounced him guilty – but he ‘didn’t carry an axe’, as some suggest. When travelling, he speaks roughly about how anyone not jumping to it will feel his boot up their arse. The man who grew up the son of a Putney blacksmith doesn’t usually speak like this any more, but it’s what is expected and he nurtures his street-fighting reputation.

As in Wolf Hall – and I promise I’ll eventually stop going on about that novel, – we’re in a continuous historical present, and almost all of what Mantel gives us is from Cromwell’s point of view. If she steps out of this occasionally it isn’t for long, and it doesn’t detract from the impression that it’s Cromwell’s interior life that drives the book. It’s far easier for the reader to get his or her bearings in this sequel than in the first of what we now know is to be a trilogy. I can remember sometimes feeling entirely lost in Wolf Hall, especially early on before the identities of the protagonists had been properly established – a process that would sometimes take several chapters. In Bring Up the Bodies Mantel gives us far clearer signals about who is who and what they are like. So far, Cromwell strikes me as a far less complex character than in Wolf Hall. But it’s early days yet.

But I’m not telling you the plot. Wolf Hall, which gives the first novel its title even though we don’t recognise its significance until the end, is where Jane Seymour lives. We are given to understand that the Seymours are a typical aristocratic family of the period. Sir John is ambitious and ruthless: the story is that he stole his own son’s wife, eventually marrying her himself after cuckolding his son ‘120 times’ according to the gossip. Cromwell is accompanying Henry VIII and his retinue for one of his state visits, really a holiday, and they are out hunting as the novel opens. This is Henry in his element: days on horseback and evenings dining. And by the end of their short stay he’s sniffed out Jane. But Mantel isn’t entirely cynical about the process. Cromwell recognises the ‘stunned’ look on Henry’s face, and knows what it means. But he won’t be leaping into bed with her: by the end of the long Chapter 2 she’s only just agreed to allow him to write poems to her….

Also by this point we know that Anne Boleyn is pregnant again. We know the court’s keen interest in royal gynaecology – Cromwell is pleased when it’s his usually slow-witted son Gregory who first notices how she seems more filled-out than usual before any of the sharp young men at table in his London house – and now the speculation begins. It makes Jane’s decision more urgent, as Cromwell guesses what her family must realise: if she doesn’t hurry up Henry won’t need a mistress, because Anne will have given birth and will be back in service again.

And in the background there’s the Catholic former Queen, now Lady Katherine, and her daughter Mary. Mary is older than Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter who is now first in line to the throne, and Henry sends Cromwell to see Katherine. Cromwell seems to feel no animosity for the woman he helped to turn out of Henry’s bed. Animosity isn’t what makes him tick: we always get the feeling that he’s just doing his job. But plenty of old families still resent what has happened to her, and regard Mary as the true heir to the throne. Further in the background than them are the masters of the rest of Europe, as we’ve been hearing about almost from the beginning of the novel. There’s the Pope, of course, relegated in Cromwell’s presentation of him to the status of a grasping, corrupt foreign prince. There’s Francis, the king of France, and Katherine’s cousin and ally the Emperor Charles of Spain and the Low Countries, whose ambassador Chapuys lives near to Cromwell, and whom he knows well. Katherine is ill, and if she dies it will change the dynamic in all sorts of ways.

Charles is the one they fear might be most ready to attempt an invasion. Cromwell knows how much a war would cost. He knows the cost of everything, sometimes weighing up in his mind the value of the textiles in the clothes worn by the aristocrats from ancient families attempting, unsuccessfully, to score conversational points against the blacksmith’s son. They can’t afford a war, and he seeks to move the king, who is considered ‘warlike’ (I can’t remember who uses the word), from thinking that they could repel an invasion easily. It all costs money…

…and we see him at work doing one of his main jobs, supervising the milking of the monasteries. He sends inspectors – in twos, to avoid the opportunities for bribery – to assess the value of Church and abbey property. To his mind – or in what he says to his men, which might or might not be the same thing – all they are doing is getting rid of some of the fat from these bloated, self-serving institutions. He will slip in a judicious remark for the men to snigger at about the greed and sexual incontinence of the men who live there, the privileges enjoyed by some of them while people outside go hungry. Mantel lets us come away with the impression that this isn’t hypocrisy on his part: he might well believe it. He has travelled widely enough to have few illusions about the motivations of the men and women he comes across; occasionally the straightforward linear chronology is interrupted by a memory from his life as a young man, first as a mercenary and then in the house of Frescobaldi in Florence, where he learnt a lot of what serves him now about the running of a costly enterprise.

It’s all reasonably straightforward, and we feel we know where we are. There’s something flattering about a narrative in which we can share in some of this clever man’s worldly-wise take on human affairs, as though we are as astute as he is. I’m not finding Cromwell either as likeable or as spiritual as in Wolf Hall but, as I’ve said, it’s early days. And the thing about historical novels is that we know what smart-arse Cromwell doesn’t. In 1535 he is the King’s Master Secretary – but fortunes can go down as well as up. And one day, as we know, they will.

10 December
Chapter 3 – Angels, Christmas 1535 to New Year 1536
This chapter is about insecurity. Mantel never uses the word, because she doesn’t need to. But the unease of some of the characters has been growing throughout the book: I’ve just noticed how I ended last time. A word Mantel does use is ‘relentless’, which might describe the pitiless onward march of events, but is in fact used – we can’t be sure if springs from Cromwell’s mind or from that of the self-effacing narrative presence who blandly reveals it to us – about Anne. Near the end of the chapter she has just heard of the death of Katherine, and her crowing glee is unconfined. But it’s the way she stamps on the dead woman’s memory that leads to the observation concerning her relentlessness. When Henry, in that simple way of his, remarks that many people will be saddened by the death, Anne will have none of it. ‘They didn’t know her. How can they mourn? What was she to them? A foreigner!’ Henry reminds her that ‘she was once given the title of queen,’ but Anne is, well, relentless: ‘Mistakenly.’

This is Anne at her worst – and, as hindsight tells us, at her most naïvely complacent. After this, we get a reminder that she is no more secure than Katherine was before Henry divorced her. Henry has just publicly acknowledged Anne’s pregnancy by speaking of the Princess Elizabeth’s impatience to meet her younger brother, and Anne is at the zenith of her good fortune. But gossip about her ranges from treasonable speculations that the unborn child is not Henry’s to the everyday judgments about her fading looks: she doesn’t look a day younger than her age, and she is now in her 30s. Anne, like all fortunate people, thinks that she deserves her position, but Cromwell knows that it is built on nothing at all. We all do.

Before all this – I seem to be describing it all in reverse order – Cromwell himself has an uneasy moment as he muses over the nagging thought that is likely to keep him awake that night. Mantel teasingly tells us it’s to do with what the boorish Brandon, the Earl of Suffolk, has said. I assumed it was to do with his outburst, within Chapuys’s hearing, about Henry’s supposed intention to ditch Anne and marry the French king’s daughter. It’s the first that Cromwell has heard of it, and makes him realise that he doesn’t know everything after all. But that isn’t the worst of it. Brandon has reminded Cromwell, as he always does, of his lowly beginnings and, as we know, these have no effect on him. Except…

… he has begun to realise, perhaps for the first time, how insecure this makes him. He has previously refused the office of Lord Chancellor, which would have conferred a recognised status. Instead, he has descriptive job titles that mean nothing and confer no rights of entry into foreign courts. He realises that he can’t know what’s going on if some doors are closed to him. He is becoming less and less satisfied with his position, and this goes with the regretful thoughts he has about how little time he has to himself. He’s 50, and what does all his so-called power do for him? He never sees the tracts of land he has bought, so they are no more comfort to him than the paper the deeds are written on….

As I wrote at the beginning, insecurity is what this chapter is about. Very early on we get a vivid insight into the mutability of fortune in this universe. At a great dinner there is a toast to Henry Guildford, the former Comptroller General. He had refused to concede that Katherine’s marriage to Henry was invalid, and Anne was as relentless as we see her later on. He resigned before she could sack him and retired to his house in the country – where, as is the way of things, he died within months. This is how Mantel builds up a picture, from incidents and encounters, or stories about characters we otherwise know little about, whose fates reveal to us the way that things work. Or there’s an almost throwaway line, as when the thought occurs – possibly to Cromwell, although it isn’t precisely ascribed to him – that Anne’s eyes are still striking, especially when they gleam with interest, as when a cat sees ‘the whisk of some small creature’s tail.’ We know what cats do with small creatures.

The early part of the chapter is set around Christmas, always a great celebration in the Cromwell household. But all the women in his life have died before this novel opens – there is a strange moment during the hunt that opens it as we realise that he has given their names to his falcons – and the day is full of ghosts. The most poignant moment, the one that shows us Cromwell at his most humane and vulnerable, comes when another man’s young daughter wears the angel wings that Grace wore ten years before. He can hardly believe the time is so short and, we assume, how thin his life must seem. Another vulnerable moment is when one of the young men in the house asks what has happened to the souls in Purgatory now that Purgatory no longer exists. Is there any point in praying for them? Cromwell gives a diplomatic answer, but we know that he must be wondering. Like everybody else, he was a Catholic until three or four years ago.

Mantel weaves these threads together so deftly that they don’t seem like separate threads at all. The uncertainties and dissatisfactions of Cromwell’s personal life run exactly parallel to those of his political life. Always he presents a capable persona, the man with the answers, the man in charge – as one of his protégés only half-jokingly announces him as he arrive home. It is by no means a false impression: he really is in charge, really does have his finger in every pie. But I’m reminded of an incident in a previous chapter when he offers to set up a chessboard as it was when he allegedly distracted the other player with talk of (I think) Jane Seymour when they played in Calais over three years ago. He can’t really remember, but knows style of play used by men like his opponent, would be able to make an approximation of how the board would have looked. He doesn’t need to, because they start a new game, but he has given a bit of fine-tuning to his own legend.

But he doesn’t know everything. Henry has been speaking to the French envoy, and when Cromwell brings Chapuys to see him – he wants permission to see Katherine, whose illness is worsening at this time – Cromwell is convinced that the king is pursuing two foreign policies at the same time, only one of which he knows about. Cromwell and he are pursuing a détente with the Emperor Charles, but Henry tells Chapuys that France is making some very attractive offers. Cromwell has no idea how much truth there is in this – and when, at the same meeting, Brandon makes his preposterous-sounding allegation about Henry’s marriage plans, he can’t be absolutely sure that it’s false.

And meanwhile…. Katherine, a fading figure since Cromwell saw her in Chapter 2, eventually dies. Anne thinks that it puts an end to her problems. With that mixture of naivety and arrogant complacency we’re coming to recognise, she thinks that Mary will present her with no difficulties. She offers to be a mother to her, and when Mary replies with contempt, Anne pretends that her duty is done and there is no more to be said. Hah. The chapter ends with Henry’s continuing pursuit of Jane Seymour. So far she is scrupulously following the course of action she’s set herself: when Henry impetuously sweeps her on to his lap she remains there as though sitting on ‘a joint-stool’. Watch this space.

11 December
Part 2, Chapter 4 – The Black Book, January to April 1536
What goes with insecurity? Uncertainty – and, as in most of the novel so far, this chapter is full of it. Among a lot of other things is a memory lodged inside Cromwell’s mind from when he lived in Venice as a young man, and it chimes with an event right in the present. In Venice Cromwell remembers having a drink with a middle-aged veteran of the jousting tournaments, now fallen on hard times. He is, or was, the 16th Century equivalent of the glamorous sportsman, proud of his prowess and wanting to convince anyone who will listen that it wasn’t just a game. And look at him now. The next night Cromwell and his German friend find the man half-dead, his purse emptied and his feet left dangling in the city’s waters.

The story does not in any way advance the plot, but we remember it when, early in 1536, Cromwell is told that the king is dead at one of the tournaments he loves so much. Cromwell is so confused he can’t get it out of his head for a while that the dead man is Gregory, the other person he can’t bear to watch at tournaments. (He is always trying to fix it for him to get kindly opponents.) There lies Henry, with courtiers fluttering about ineffectually, stretched out and lifeless following a fall from his horse. If Cromwell is relieved that it is not Gregory, the feeling is soon gone. As he puts it later, the king is his only friend – he jokes mordantly that he is probably the only man in England who can say this – and he spends desperate minutes trying, and failing, to put together a plan of action for himself. Who will offer him safe passage to a friendly foreign court? If such a place exists, he can’t think of one. He realises that he hasn’t planned for this, as the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle and a long-term enemy of his, bellows that he will take charge. Outside, supporters of the Boleyn family can be heard – or is this merely an allegation made later? – crying out for their own party.

We know that Henry isn’t dead but, for a while, Cromwell doesn’t. Recovering later the king tells Cromwell a story – Mantel loves to place anecdotes side by side in this way – of when, as a boy, he and his father were in a house that partially collapsed around them. They were both unharmed, but for a moment Henry swears that he could feel himself falling into the abyss, could smell the damp earth around him. This story, and that of the tournament veteran in Venice, give added texture to Cromwell’s growing sense of unease. If he had previously taken it for granted that nobody is safe, he’s never had it brought home to him so vividly that he is no exception.

The political focus of this chapter has narrowed down from the Europe-wide repercussions of Henry’s split from Rome to the intrigues and manoeuvrings of the English court. And then it’s narrower still, right down to the gynaecology of one woman. In Wolf Hall the legal debate about Henry’s divorce had descended to talk of torn skin and spots of blood on the bed-linen on the wedding night. With Anne it’s the old question that always haunts Henry, the one he speaks out loud half-way through the chapter: is it ordained by God that he will never have a legitimate male heir? For months Anne doesn’t even look pregnant, and when she is examined the date of conception appears to be when Henry was processing through the country. And then, of course, she miscarries.

I know from the book’s advance publicity the origin of the command in the title. But never mind that. This is a book about bodies. Anne’s, obviously, but also Henry’s as an old leg injury is opened up again following his accident at the tournament…. And the foetus, no bigger than a rat with its budding limbs, and Katherine’s, now buried, and Cromwell’s own. How does he keep himself so sleek, wonders the scrawny Duke of Norfolk at a dinner Cromwell organises at Archbishop Cranmer’s. And… and we know where Mantel is going with this. Anne has already had to be saved from burning when a candle is unaccountably left alight near her bed. And Mantel is showing us how her relationship with Henry is slowly beginning to unravel. Cromwell has often noticed how she hides her irritation with his overbearing solicitousness, but in the middle of the night after the fire her near-contempt becomes all too obvious. And meanwhile the attention that Henry pays to Jane Seymour is becoming common knowledge.

Time passes, as winter gives way to spring. Cromwell has had his scare, and I think Mantel uses this to offer an explanation for his behaviour from now on. She has to show him moving seamlessly from a position of unwavering public support for Anne to becoming the acknowledged organiser of her downfall, preferably without presenting him as an unprincipled little rat. What better way to get us on his side than to show his vulnerability? We get another edge-of-the-abyss moment when Henry, incandescent after a minor diplomatic blunder involving Chapuys, bears down on Cromwell as though to send him to the Tower for organising the meeting. Mantel – and I don’t know why she insists on the double-negative – tells us that later he would not be able to pretend that his heart did not turn over. (Chapuys, for what it’s worth, blames Cromwell for making him meet and bow to Anne, a woman he’d always been able to avoid until now. Only when Cromwell drops a hint of what Henry is doing – having his marriage to Anne validated in order to be able to move on from it – does Chapuys begin to forgive him.)

What are the raw materials he has to work with? Henry we know about from Wolf Hall, boyishly straightforward in his needs and enthusiasms, a ‘sulky child’ as he broods on the imagined slight. Anne, however she is presented, seems less and less attractive. None of the lords around him is remotely interested in his welfare, and he knows that some of them would have his head on a stake if Henry were not around to protect him. If a man finds himself in genuine peril, and Mantel has done her best to present him as exactly this, he has to do what he can to keep himself afloat. Which is what he does now. The perspective widens again – it’s always there in the background – as he contemplates the effect of the coming annulment on the European powers, especially France and the Empire. Not only the annulment: Mary can be married, and Henry is insisting that it should be to an English subject despite what the Europeans want. We’ve been having lessons, as Cromwell advises Rafe as he makes his way in the world of the Privy Council, about the ways that Henry’s mind can be changed if it is made to seem like his own decision. But there’s a lot of work to be done.

There are more stories and more of Cromwell’s memories to go with that of the ageing veteran of the tournaments. There are several of his father, a man who was one of the villains of Wolf Hall but who seems to be going through a re-branding in this novel. Cromwell is definitely the son of this father, the man who taught him quick-wittedness – you can’t daydream in a foundry full of flying splinters and molten metal where Henry, Cromwell decides, wouldn’t have lasted a minute. And ‘That’ll teach you!’ his father says as the young Cromwell, furious, head-butts him in the belly and hears the clang of metal before he feels the pain: his father is testing out some home-made body armour. Never attack before assessing your enemy’s strength.

At other times in his imagination Cromwell lays out the seating plans for meetings with the movers and shakers, the ones who have no respect for him. He plays out in his head the icy politeness of their exchanges, and how these people will behave. A duke with royal connections needs to be provided witgh a throne – don’t they just love the form of things? – while Cromwell sits at one end of the table, on a humble three-legged stool. But whatever he’s sitting on, we know who’s in charge: nobody else is rehearsing the meetings that will have to take place as events take their course over the coming weeks. Later, when it is clearer that it will be his job to manage the transition from one queen to another, he imagines another dinner with the ‘ancient nobility’, the ones who think that ‘England’ means only them. He imagines them waiting for the meat course, and it arrives, not yet cooked. It’s not even been slaughtered yet – and it consists of the Boleyns. (The class prejudice in this book is extraordinary: Boleyn was only a gentleman before Henry came along, and the old families will never forget it.)

Now we’re seeing those meetings happen. We’ve already seen Cromwell schmoozing the Duke of Norfolk, and Nicholas Carew, acting as a de facto messenger for the old Catholic families, lets him know that they want to work with him on this. Exeter and his fearsome wife Gertrude are named as allies, and are present at the second imagined feast. He realises that, like Henry, they think he holds the key, and Mantel makes it into a metaphor that Cromwell runs with in his mind. (I’ve realised that’s where all her metaphors are located. More of that later.) What, he thinks, if the key doesn’t work, if he can’t ‘enter Anne, not as a lover but as a lawyer’? He’ll just have to pick the lock, won’t he – or break the door down, like that time… whenever. He rubs his shoulder as he remembers the bruises. Oh yes, there’ll be bruises.

Just before the chapter ends, Cromwell is in the room as Anne shows off the Princess Elizabeth’s new bonnet to Henry. He feels ‘a stab of pity’ for her as he wonders why on earth she thinks Henry will be interested, and for a moment there is a kind of equality: who is safe in this world? Only Jane Seymour holds any excitement for the king now because, as Cromwell tells Rafe (I think), he thinks she is stupid. He’s clearly had enough of Anne’s scheming, and the Boleyns, including Anne’s father the self-styled ‘Monseigneur’ – a title carrying so much more gravitas than ‘the Earl of Wiltshire’ – are about to be sent back to Kent.

Those metaphors. I’ve been thinking about the way Mantel presents Cromwell’s memories and imagined scenarios. One reason is to give an insight into how his mind works, part of the project of mythologising his mental capabilities. But mainly they are there for another purpose. A memory of a jousting knight who’s past it and liable to be mugged? The contrast between a throne and a three-legged stool? Henry’s memory of a collapsing house? Cromwell, a child again, in his father’s hazardous forge or meeting solid metal when he’s expecting a soft belly? Cromwell as key-holder (or breaker or doors)? All of them allow Mantel to offer an often starkly physical metaphorical commentary on the book’s potentially dry abstractions. And, as often as not, we’re back to bodies again.

But Mantel ends with one of those gentler memories that help to humanise Cromwell the consummate apparatchik, of his dead wife’s sewing skill. It was second nature to her: ‘If I stopped to think how I was doing it,’ she’d told him, ‘I couldn’t do it at all.’ Who does that remind you of?

17 December
First half of Chapter 5 – Master of Phantoms, May 1536
This chapter seems to consist almost entirely of meetings, and… and what? Mantel gives Cromwell almost too easy a ride. As Lady Worcester eats the cakes that he has provided she spills the beans about just the kind of disorderly goings-on around Anne that he wants to hear, including the idea that there were plenty of things happening behind closed doors between the queen and her courtiers. We can’t tell if what she is describing is sexual misconduct or just a lot of talk, but Cromwell makes the most of it. Would she testify on oath about the closed doors? She says she would.

Next, there’s a meeting of the Knights of the Garter, gathered to elect a new member. Representatives of a lot of the old families are present, including Exeter and Brandon, all of whom are happy to include Cromwell in their conversations about Anne. Her brother George is seeking election, but these men vote in Carew instead. We can take that as an omen if we want…. Next he meets Dean Richard Samson, Henry’s adviser. They discuss the possibility of Anne going quietly (a phrase actually used in this chapter, although not necessarily just now), and whether she would accept a simple annulment and a place for her as the Abbess of some comfortable establishment. It would save everybody a lot of unpleasantness: Cromwell doesn’t want to have to break the door down, but we know he will if he has to.

Next. ‘Monseigneur’ Boleyn doesn’t resist, but Anne’s brother George, as naively unsuspecting as we’ve seen Anne to be, puts up a fight. He’s a ludicrous dandy, and the scarlet slashes on his sleeves remind Cromwell of the lurid details of a painting of a flayed figure. And yes, it is another omen. We know that Lady Rochester, his wife, is deeply unsatisfied with the marriage, and at a later meeting she tells Cromwell a story of how at one of their first meetings he ‘flipped’ her breast carelessly and told her that he’s seen plenty of better ones. But this is nothing compared to what Mary Shelton has already told Cromwell about him. He is the main rival to another courtier, Henry Norris, in trying to become Anne’s favourite – and yes, we are talking about his sister. Both of these men arrive at night and have private meetings with her at which no conversation can be heard. With no prompting she also tells Cromwell that she has heard Henry Norris talking to Anne about what they would be able to do if Henry were to die – a treasonable offence.

It all feels a bit like this, with so many hints and innuendoes from one after another of Anne’s household that a case against her and her suitors begins to write itself. Other names mentioned, are Weston, Brereton and Mark Smeaton, the toadyish musician from Wolf Hall whose progress in Anne’s household we’ve occasionally heard about. But Mantel needs to remind us that allegations and private suspicions are not the same as testimony in court, and to show us how Cromwell can make a case out of them. She has Cromwell schooling his protégés Rafe and ‘Call-me’ Risley, even resorting to a role-play exercise in which Risley is Lady Rochester being cross-examined. And these two are there when Cromwell decides to interview the one he thinks will be easiest to crack, Mark Smeaton. He isn’t wrong. Since the phrase ‘like taking candy from a baby’ hasn’t been invented yet, Cromwell likens it to picking flowers as Mark boasts about his success with Anne, and confirms the names of some of the other suitors.

What to do when Mark retracts it all as soon as he realises that he’s been set up? Cromwell has his servant Christophe take him away – the interview is at his place – and hears screams in the night. Mark hasn’t been touched but, having been locked up in the dark, in the Christmas store-room with the sharp-pointed star and the peacock feathers of those angel-wings brushing him like ghosts, he is like putty in their hands next morning. At first he names every man he knows as fellow-suitors, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cromwell himself, but things settle down. We’ve had a riff on the power of both real and imagined pain, complete with one of Cromwell’s childhood memories of searing hot metal in his father’s foundry. That’s Mantel, keeping it physical.

And when she has Cromwell visiting Henry shortly afterwards it stays physical. Henry is, as he reminds Cromwell, a ‘simple’ man. And while he might be showing the signs of middle age – big belly and dragging leg – in Mantel’s presentation of him he’s still the overgrown kid he’s always been in these novels. For him, as he wants Cromwell to reassure him, sex is about the man lying on top of the woman in the way approved by the Church. The techniques he’s been hearing about seem to cause him genuine shock. Why would a woman want to…? Wherever would she have learned such…? Cromwell sums it up in a word: ‘experience’. He has Henry imagine an ordinary man and wife, dutifully fulfilling their procreative duties on the appointed days until the man’s young apprentice brings ‘his tool’ to show the woman some new tricks…. It’s a double shock for Henry: apparent evidence of Anne’s adultery has been unceremoniously thrust before him, and he’s heard about the sorts of practices – Mantel is as frank in her presentation of the physical aspects as she is with everything else – that led God to destroy Sodom.

Henry keeps bringing Cromwell’s hypothetical example back to his own situation – ‘But after only three years!’ – and, not for the first time, his thoughts turn to the woman who seems most unlike Anne. Cromwell advises against Jane being brought anywhere near London, citing the coarse ballads that are already circulating. Henry is persuaded, but will send her one of his ‘tokens’, a richly jewelled little prayer-book. What a man needs is some safe territory: love tokens, poems… they will take his mind off the ‘tragedy’ he’s writing about the terrible things that people have done to him.

Next: more bodies. Specifically, those of Anne and Henry, described in different ways in the section covering Anne’s arrest. She is complacently oblivious of the way her world is about to collapse, but when it does it happens fast. (Everything happens fast in this chapter. Cromwell only started his investigations on St George’s Day, 23 April, and he talks to Henry on the first of May.) Anne is taken from her residence to the Tower, accompanied by Cromwell and other members of the Privy Council. On the way, the common public discussion of Henry’s body – its characteristics and ‘effusions’ – leads to the slightly far-fetched analogy of an island being explored and charted. It’s no wonder that we find out later that each night he sleeps naked ‘like a natural man’ in his own private bed after slipping out of the huge, damask-covered state monstrosity.

With Anne, Mantel is much more literal. We’ve had Henry’s bewildered questions to Cromwell about the way she presents herself to him in bed, and now we get two separate mentions of how small she seems, shrinking like a child in the boat and, after sinking to the ground at the Tower, seeming to weigh ‘nothing’ to Cromwell when he is the only one to think of picking her up. It may be literal but tells us a lot. To her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk – he’s never forgiven her for not bringing him on when she had the chance – she’s the ‘bag of bones’.

Norfolk is one of the Privy Councillors escorting her, and Mantel has them dividing into an unsympathetic party led by him – he is vituperative in the way he describes her and talks to her – and a group who are more considered in their dealings. You’ll guess which group Cromwell is careful to side with, as men like Audley and Fitzwilliam attempt to tone down the remarks of the gung-ho faction, like the suspicions of Richard Rich who can sniff out treason ‘like a bloodhound’. I was fooled for a while by Cromwell’s sweet reasonableness: he seems only to want what is best, doesn’t want to go any further than necessary… but just you wait.

First we get some interludes in the company of the main players. Anne has reportedly said that she is ‘not worthy’ of the high-class apartments she’s been assigned to in the Tower. So she’s admitting guilt, yes? Cromwell decides to say not: she’s failed in the task she set herself all those years ago, to get Henry and keep him. Not for the first time, there’s a spark of self-recognition as he looks at her situation…. Next is a meeting with Henry to peruse a letter sent by Cranmer, always a supporter of Anne’s following her support of him. The letter’s tortured logic suggests that she can’t possibly be guilty of the sexual crimes she’s accused of – but she must be. Henry Fitzroy appears, and asks Cromwell’s advice about sex and marriage. Cromwell, of course, can see what his real father can’t: that Fitzroy’s marriage was arranged by the bride’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, for political reasons. It’s in the interest of the poor boy’s father-in-law to keep his daughter a virgin, because you never know when she might be useful elsewhere…. Ugly place, the England governed by these men.

Next, to Carew’s house, where the Seymours are staying. Jane is being smartened up by her mother and sister, and her father is trying to get her to behave more regally – all vain hopes if this scene is anything to go by. Cromwell is there to present her with the jewelled book, which becomes one of Mantel’s neat little props. Its cover is studded with rubies forming the initial A – Cromwell is mortified that Henry hadn’t warned him first – and the outline of K is still visible beneath. A verse inside suggests that the love of a good woman is worth more than rubies. Not necessarily, Cromwell thinks: this third-hand book is typical of Henry’s penny-pinching habits. After this, Carew tries to speed up the Princess Mary’s reintegration into court life, which Cromwell promises to do, and to arrest Wyatt, which he has no intention of doing.

The interrogations we get instead are of the men who in Cromwell’s sights. He’s in his element, and it isn’t pretty. Norris, Brereton, George Boleyn…. These are all men whose names have come up in the highly suspect allegations we’ve heard, but to him they are convenient: ‘guilty, but not necessarily guilty as charged’. It becomes clear what he means as he subjects them all to the kind of grilling that none of them had been expecting. Norris’s comments on his methods are so astute that Cromwell is momentarily impressed, but it doesn’t help him. Norris, like the others, had been a participant in the triumphalist degradation of Wolsey’s memory after his death, a mocking pantomime in which they, disguised as devils, had dragged a grotesque caricature of Wolsey down to hell. Each held a paw of the beast that Wolsey had become, and as each interrogation ends he ticks off the part each one played: Henry Norris, left forepaw; William Brereton, right forepaw, and so on.

Cromwell’s interrogation technique is good cop, but one with a violent alter-ego who sometimes interrupts with a shocking threat. With Norris it’s the suggestion of how he might ‘sing Green Grows the Holly’ if Cromwell decided to gouge out his eyes with his thumbs; with Boleyn it’s stark reminders of the painful and humiliating death faced by a traitor. And, with less than a quarter of the book yet to go, we realise we don’t know this man at all. There’s the ugliness of his vengeful pursuit of the men he saw crowing over Wolsey’s death – and, after upbraiding them for scrambling after the lands and offices of anyone out of favour, we are there as he calculates what he will do with their property. Rafe can have one of Brereton’s houses so that his wife will have her own place when he’s abroad on the king’s business…. And he’s been mercilessly sarcastic about Brereton’s proud boast that in the Welsh borders he is a law unto himself. As I’ve said before, who does that remind you of?

I’m only half-way through this long chapter, and there’s still a paw unaccounted for, but as we reach the end of the second part of the trilogy Mantel is setting things up for Cromwell’s fall. If there’s one thing we’ve all learnt in this book it’s that nobody except the king himself is safe… and, while we might have spent a thousand pages learning how Cromwell has become the man he is, at this point I’m not on his side.

But we’ll see what the rest of the book will will bring up. Bodies, probably.

21 December
The rest of Chapter 5 and the short Chapter 6, Spoils
‘Francis Weston, right hindpaw’. That’s how Mantel introduces the subject of Cromwell’s final interrogation, so we know from the start that he’s a dead man. These interviews have never really been interrogations anyway, more a series of trumped-up allegations presented as proven facts. Weston is constantly referred to as a boy, and this time Cromwell plays the part of the shocked older man, sanctimonious in his head-shaking disappointment. He draws out from Weston that he had been expecting to live his carefree life until he was old – ’forty-five or fifty’ – and then throw some of his money into good works to buy himself forgiveness. Why not, we think – and Cromwell probably thinks – when it’s worked for all the older men Weston must have known?

Something about the meeting, possibly that reference to his own age of fifty, pulls Cromwell up short. He finds himself standing up and leaving the chamber, and he comes to the realisation that the men whose fates he plays with are not pieces on a chessboard. He has a vision of the hanging corpses of the people he has helped to condemn…. When he goes to speak to Anne, he is struck by the brave face she seems to be putting on things. He is impressed by her self-possession, doesn’t move in for the kill, but lets her continue to live in the fantasy – the one she can’t really believe, he is sure – that Henry will stop this test of her loyalty and have her back. Later he regards these two moments of compassion (or whatever – he never names it) as ‘faltering’, and we don’t see it again.

He decides to hold Wyatt after all, but only for his own safety. Cromwell regards him as the cleverest man in England, able to use words in ways no-one else can match: no matter what he appears to say about anything he has done, he is able to convince anyone that he never actually said it. Wyatt had known Anne Boleyn in Kent before Henry came along, and had told him before the marriage of her ‘Yes, yes, yes, no’ bedroom behaviour. He refuses to change around two little words – she never did say ‘Yes, yes, no, yes.’ Cromwell will have to look for some other way to unlock this case.

Where he looks is to Harry Percy, a man we met in Wolf Hall. He had been an obstacle to the marriage between Henry and Anne, alleging that having once exchanged solemn vows with her she allowed him ‘freedoms’ that only a betrothed lover would. The set-piece conversation in which Cromwell the Putney lad lets Cecil know the score is one of the best scenes in the earlier novel, and I’m not surprised Mantel reminds her readers of it in this one. It ends with Cromwell threatening that if he doesn’t recant, the Duke of Norfolk ‘will drag you out of whatever hole you’re cowering in and bite your bollocks off.’

What Cromwell needs to do now is persuade Percy that his recantation, on oath before Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a mistake. He must have been drunk, must have forgotten the details…. Or maybe that leather-bound volume he swore on wasn’t really a bible? But Percy still has his bollocks – the idea really does occur to Cromwell – and he won’t change his story. It’s almost comic, a reversal of the equally comic earlier scene in Wolf Hall in which Cromwell held all the cards. Now there’s nothing he can do: Percy is ill, looking so near to death he reminds Cromwell of Katherine when he saw her for the last time. It’s going to have to be the back-up plan, the one in which those ‘guilty men’ have to be paraded as adulterers.

There’s a conversation full of easy cynicism in which Cromwell and ‘Call-me’ discuss the morals of the Boleyn girls. It’s common knowledge in the inner circle that Henry slept with Anne’s sister Mary, which would be enough to invalidate his marriage to Anne – if it were admissible evidence, or likely that such details of the king’s life could be paraded in court. Instead the two men speculate on the likely behaviour of Anne in the French court where she was brought up. In among the sarcasm, Cromwell is building up the case against Anne in his mind. She must be guilty, and all he needs to do is go through the motions the law demands in order to prove it.

Which is what we see, in all its ugliness. There’s another brief interlude first, in which Chapuys reminds Cromwell – and the reader – of the background buzz in Europe concerning both the future of Mary and speculation about just how many wives Henry will eventually need…. And then it’s the trial of the guilty men. This is when we hear the phrase ‘Bring up the bodies’, yet another of Mantel’s reminders that these man have been dead meat – a phrase she actually uses – since Cromwell got them in his sights. She spends longer on descriptions of the crowd – the jostling, the betting, the fights – than she does on the trial. Cromwell runs rings around the men and they are found guilty. The end. Next.

Next comes another interlude: Cromwell at home for the evening. We haven’t seen much of the place in this novel because he spends so many nights in chambers wherever business takes him. Besides, except at Christmas his house is has been no more than a place for him to carry on his work, somewhere to invite a guilty man or discuss business with Chapuys or Rafe. Work follows him home after the trial, as he reassures Gregory that he was not led by a grudge of his own to pursue the condemned men, it was ‘the king’s will’. He comes out with this nonsense publicly, so it can be heard by ‘the household’. In the latter part of the book public opinion has been a running thread, and Cromwell is trying to downplay his own role. It might work if he believed it himself: more and more he is saying things we know he only wishes were the truth.

Mantel lets us inside his mind for another of her metaphors. The ’sweating’, visceral carnality of Anne’s supposed activities with her lovers, as presented in lurid detail in the charges, really have been framed by Henry in his state of shocked affrontery. Cromwell imagines them, already reduced to words on paper, cleanly wrapped and bundled for the court. The image brings him no comfort because he can’t help envisaging the trials in intense physical terms, culminating in a bizarre image of a mother bear, bloodily giving birth. But who is the bear – and what is it giving birth to?

Anne’s trial, in a specially furnished room in the Tower, is not quite as perfunctory as that of the men. But it nearly is: Cromwell – for who else would decide such things? – has made sure that Norfolk is in charge, and we know what he thinks of Anne. There are far more witnesses, but Cromwell finds himself merely going through the motions. He sees some of the assembled lords stifling yawns, realises that he has managed to make an unprecedented trial appear ‘routine’. Not for the first time, he seems surprised at his own behaviour, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is a deliberate ploy by Mantel. His more spiritual self – the one I complained about the lack of early on – is having the wool pulled over its eyes by his baser nature. He’s joined the dark side and he doesn’t even realise.

There’s some business in court when it comes to deciding on the manner of Anne’s execution. It would set a precedent for a woman guilty of treason not to be burnt – but Cromwell is sarcastic: there is no precedent for any of this. He makes sure that she is to be beheaded instead, knows that Henry has already sorted out a French headsman for the job. The Tower executioner is relieved, but he will have to be the one to execute the five guilty men once the manner of their executions is decided. Some of the lords are for the full hanging and drawing – the hideous death Cromwell has held over some of them – but Cromwell, thinking of the wives and children who will somehow have to live afterwards, makes sure that they are all to be beheaded. This is what mercy looks like in his universe – but when the time comes, the headsman makes a hash of the first one. By the time he’s finished, the last of them are slipping in blood on their way to the block. When the corpses, stripped of their finery (the Tower constable’s perk) are all jumbled together… don’t even ask.

Are we nearly there yet? Henry is bad at saying goodbye, apparently, and Anne hasn’t seen him since her arrest. She is executed by the French swordsman, and it’s ladies-in-waiting of her choice – a final mercy of Cromwell’s – who deal with the body. Enough said? Probably, except for the final chapter, Spoils, little more than a short epilogue. We get lists of which new courtiers fill the dead men’s shoes, the date and quiet manner of Jane filling the dead woman’s shoes, the way Anne’s heraldic beasts can ‘economically’ be altered into Jane’s.… And Cromwell returns home for a few pages of contemplative stuff. There’s the past here – the Christmas wings, ‘tawdry’ now and, in fact, little else that belonged to Grace. There’s a book belonging to his clever daughter, Mary, some scrap paper with old writing on the back including, occasionally, some lines of Wolsey’s. But what is it really? Words….

Cromwell imagines the feast again, with the families he’s helped trying to sweep him away with the ‘rushes and bones’. He’s too quick for them, he’s ‘entrenched’ in his position – he’s become a baronet now – but… but what? He knows all about the ‘mutability of life’ in this world, knows he might well be gone soon. Not that it stops his head being filled with the next set of projects: how to stop Henry killing his daughter Mary? How to prevent the old families, who feel they’ve won, from killing him, Cromwell? He might soon be dead, but, as though to promise that it will be worth waiting for the next novel, Mantel puts an appropriate thought into his head to end this one: ‘There are no endings, only beginnings. And this is one.’

27 December
Postscript – Lines I wrote about Wolf Hall that precisely fit Bring Up the Bodies
The whole novel is told in the present tense and, running alongside the cynical Realpolitik that appears to be these people’s bread and butter, the immediacy of the narration brings them into a political world we seem to recognise as somehow familiar.

Mantel doesn’t have them coming out with 16th Century phraseology: their language is … modern-sounding.

Cromwell is always ‘he’, and if this presents any ambiguity he becomes ‘he, Cromwell’.

…it’s Mantel who’s doing the presenting, but she often only lets us see what Cromwell himself allows to be seen.

…at that moment the personal and the political are shown as inextricably linked.

…he pictures an imaginary seating-plan that includes all the players…

You never get an overview. What you get instead are details. This happens at every level. Mantel doesn’t describe a house, such as Thomas More’s at Chelsea, she describes the pictures you see when you get there. A person is presented in terms of the fidgeting movements of hands or the stitching on clothes – how she loves embroidery, decorative baubles, textiles…

…it feels … like scenes from a long tapestry unfolding…

Not much domesticity… but plenty of references to his careful planning and accounting skills…

He does tend to treat people like pawns sometimes. Often.

Henry can’t be mature in the way that Cromwell or almost any of the other key players are mature, so dealing with him is always going to have an element of managing the Queen in Blackadder about it.

The king, along with everybody else, lives in the kind of highly physical world our century associates with childhood and adolescence. We’ve had (and continue to get) reminders of the realities of life, as though Mantel wants to remind us that these people are a lot closer to the Middle Ages than they are to us…

All of Cromwell’s life is spent organising things he doesn’t really care about… He’s doing 18-hour days on the efficient running of a state machine that’s largely based on the whims of a 40-something child. (Mantel has him actually using the word, in his thoughts at least.)

An extraordinarily imaginative insight into what it must have been like for an ordinary man gradually to become the most powerful man in government? I’m not going to deny it. But think about what is lacking. Little or no character development amongst the army of other characters; no visual – or any other – evocation of daily life in London; no sense of the vastness of distances that are a few hours’ journey for us, of the yawning gaps of time between the sending of a letter to Europe and getting a reply. You don’t get the big sweep, ever, you get the intimate, the small-scale, the little.

The main engine of all this historical business is Henry – his inability to deal with the lack of a male heir, his lack of maturity, his inability to manage the women in his life – and, of course, his problems have only just begun.

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