See also Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
[I read this final volume of the Cromwell trilogy, published in 2020, in nine or ten sections. I wrote about each section before reading on.]
7 March 2020
Part 1—I, Wreckage (I) and most of II, Salvage
Having read 100 or so pages, I’m struck by how much more dense this is than the previous books in the Cromwell trilogy. The style is the same in every other respect—the continuous-present third person narration, the unremitting focus on Cromwell’s point of view, the subtle use of speech marks to indicate which of Cromwell’s thoughts are spoken and which he keeps to himself—but Mantel has set herself the task of covering a four-year period in less than 900 pages. It might sound straightforward—authors can cover years in a page or two if they choose—but all these novels focus on the moment-by-moment working out of carefully presented conversations or the minutiae of Cromwell’s mental stocktaking of recent events. One of the latter becomes a kind of set piece, almost a tour de force, as he tries to sleep after a dinner with Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador we’ve met before. It’s a week or two after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and Mantel needs eleven pages to show how his encyclopaedic mind ranges over the evening’s conversation and recent events. She’s always thorough—and there are a lot of days in four years.
So, a lot of the density is down to Mantel’s fastidious rendering of the workings of Cromwell’s mental machinery. But something else is the sheer complexity of the way Anne’s death has skewed the political and religious dynamic. To help us through, Mantel has a five-page list of characters, divided into sections, and family trees for the Tudors and Plantagenets. It’s already become clear why the second of these is needed: descendants of Richard III’s elder brother Clarence are still living, and one of them, Reginald Pole, has just sent Henry a long and highly provocative explanation of a) why he will only ever support Mary as the heir to the throne, and b) why England must return to Catholicism. I’ll come back to that, because it’s just one of many headaches facing Cromwell in the early summer of 1536.
In that night-time mental stock-take—or was it the grinding gears of insomnia?—and at plenty of other times too, Cromwell remembers conversations from the recent past. Several of them are with Anne’s co-defendants before their trials and executions, as Mantel both reminds us of some of the key players, and gives us an insight into how Cromwell constantly carries all this stuff around in his head. Part of his reputation is based on the fact that he seems to remember everything. In this novel, as in the earlier two, not only is knowledge power for him, but he wants people to think he knows absolutely everything. He plays little tricks to keep his own mythology going—to the extent that when Henry gets his unwelcome missive from Pole—it’s 300 pages, in fact—he’s not at all surprised that Cromwell appears to have been expecting it. This is great… except, now that we’re in what Cromwell himself has decided is the seventh stage in his life, there might just be cracks appearing in the total trust Henry has always placed in him. If Cromwell knew what Pole had in mind, the king wonders why he didn’t warn him. Or get one of his agents to put pressure on him….
What Mantel is somehow able to convey is not only density, but the understanding that the density we’re experiencing is part of the texture of Cromwell’s mind. Maybe it’s this that makes reading her historical fiction unlike any other author’s. We know, for instance, that while Cromwell is talking to Chapuys, who has trouble with English pronunciations, if his own name is ever mentioned in the narrative stream it’s ‘Cremuel.’ It’s slipped seamlessly into the idiolect of the narration, just as Cromwell slips easily not only into different registers—you should hear the way he can become a Putney street boss in the blink of an eye—but different languages. He’s a European as well as a local, and only speaks French to Chapuys. And the fluid, encyclopaedic narrative style, as though we are looking at the world through his eyes, has a knock-on effect for the reader. As other people, council members or lords with an axe to grind, attempt to assess a situation, we feel vaguely sorry for them. They can try—and they might well know a lot more than we do as readers—but we know they don’t know the half of it. Only Cromwell knows.
However. There’s already been a lot of talk between him and the toffs about how precarious his own position could become. He remembers what a shock it had been when Henry had been close to death after falling at a tournament in Bring Up the Bodies. Then, he hadn’t been able to think of a single person who would have both the power and inclination to offer him safe passage away from England. But now, as Chapuys had been teasingly reminding him during dinner—and as we see soon after—it’s the unpredictability of the king he has to worry about. Cromwell had been instrumental in bringing about Anne’s death—that’s what those interviews before the trial were all about—but the fact of her beheading has been unsettling for everyone. If the king is capable of contemplating such an end for his wife, a queen, nobody is safe. There’s more of a mood of fear in the court than at any time before, everybody choosing their words as carefully as they can, and Cromwell knows he’s really got his work cut out for him to stay safe. Those powerful men have him in their sights….
Leaving aside the question of how powerful they are, what is it they want from him that will keep him safe? I mentioned the skewed dynamic, and a lot of it is to do with the fact that Anne Boleyn, the arch Protestant, is gone—and some of the men who think they were vital in Cromwell’s success in getting rid of her want a return to the old order. Which means, during this hiatus before anybody knows whether the Henry’s new wife will produce him a male heir, that the favourite as future monarch is Mary. This is anathema to Henry. Both his marriages have been annulled, so the order in which his daughters were born—the ailing Mary and the squealing toddler Eliza—is irrelevant. Neither will ever rule, a line that is official court policy. We hear not only the apparatchiks but also people like Cromwell’s far from brilliant son Gregory spout the party line that Katherine of Aragon was guilty of incest and Anne Boleyn would sleep with anybody.
But Cromwell also has to deal with people who don’t toe the party line. Nobody is blowing a trumpet for Elizabeth but, amongst the lords like Norfolk who want a return to the Catholic status quo, Mary is the favourite. He’s used to dealing with them, but it’s more complicated now. And it doesn’t help that Henry’s acknowledged bastard son Fitzroy, a callow young man with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, assumes that primogeniture will give him the throne. Cromwell is glad that only he is listening to Fitzroy make his case—his speculations about a time after Henry’s death would count as treacherous in law, as we discovered in the time before Anne’s trial.
Described baldly like this, it might sound as though all Cromwell has to do is a bit of juggling. But in the day-to-day working out of the fallout from Anne’s execution, it’s far more complicated. All the time, Cromwell is interested in avoiding conflict because he knows that nobody’s agenda quite matches anybody else’s. They are talking amongst themselves all the time, and he has never been so aware of the fact that he isn’t party to every conversation. And over all of it, Henry seems even more volatile and subject to changes of mood than he was before. We know that he’s only focused on the possibility of a new heir, but things like that 300-page manifesto from Pole, safe in Europe, have knocked him off-balance. Why, he wonders, hasn’t Cromwell sorted out Mary’s supporters yet?
One complicating factor is that Cromwell isn’t a machine, he’s a human being. He’s known Mary a long time, sympathises with her plight much more than he ever sympathised with the self-serving Anne Boleyn, and… and he has a lot to sort out. He often delegates negotiations to his little cohort of proto-civil servants like his trusted nephew Rafe Sadler. He sends him and Thomas ‘Call Me’ Wriothesley to sound Mary out—it’s a matter of some urgency that she signs an oath of allegiance to the new order, rescinding her own rights, and she’s not happy about it—and they come back feeling bruised. He isn’t surprised… but they have to learn how to deal with things like this—and, besides, as was always the plan, now she knows what his agenda is.
This is why his working days are sixteen hours long, and why he might sometimes spend a sleepless night trying to square about a dozen different circles in his head. He knows he’s as indispensable as ever, but he turned 50 in Bring Up the Bodies and he knows how hard it will be to stay in favour. His memories are often to do with how he learnt his political skills, and they continue to serve him well. But who would want a boss like Henry?
Part 1—the rest of II, Salvage; and III, Wreckage (II)
Among other things, I’d oversimplified how Cromwell was setting things up for a workable outcome with regard to Mary. It was never going to be simply a matter of softening her up so he could move in with his own charm offensive. With Mary, it’s all about principle and she believes that to make the oath, she would have to go against everything she believes in. So the rest of the second section here, Salvage, shows how Cromwell brings Europe into play. He spends another evening with Chapuys, because his boss, Charles V of Spain, is one of the few people who could persuade Mary to believe that making the oath would not compromise her. He could get the Pope to agree, at this time of great diplomatic upheaval—i.e. when there’s a real danger of war if agreements can’t be made— that it would not endanger Mary’s immortal soul to give her father what he wants.
Mantel makes a lot of the actual setting of the conversation with Chapuys. It’s in an airy garden tower at Austin Friars, Cromwell’s place on the edge of London, and—and what? We’ve visited the National Trust properties, we’ve seen the TV versions of the books…. It’s easy for us to imagine we can see what these two men see, right down to the low-angled late evening sun of mid-June. Chapuys picks suspiciously at the strawberries on offer—we cook these in tarts, he tells his host—all adding to that sense that what we’re getting here isn’t the usual fare of historical novels. It’s more of a virtual reality evocation, like time travel, and that’s exactly what Mantel wants.
Later in this same section, after Cromwell has succeeded in persuading Mary—I’ll come back to that—there’s the set-piece, staged reconciliation scene between her and Henry. It takes place in a house Cromwell is living in temporarily as he oversees its refurbishment for Henry—Mantel tosses these Cromwell-as-fixer details in from time to time—and it goes as well as it possibly could. As we’ve seen in earlier novels in the trilogy, the focus is all on fabrics, brocade, needlework, starting with a tapestry that Rafe’s wife Helen comments on. She is very much an uneducated commoner—Rafe’s love-match with her is charming enough for it to have passed even into Henry’s romantic personal lore—and Cromwell explains all about Artemis and her story. Is Mantel, having kindly had him remind us how Artemis removed the heads of her unsuccessful suitors, daring us to draw a parallel with any of her characters? Or is it just about the self-mythologising habits of these people, prone to draw their own parallels because that’s how arrogant they are? Whatever, the Artemis story it’s all about the imperatives of sex, with a young woman at its centre….
Cromwell’s meeting with Mary had been one of the best set pieces of the novel so far. They have a history, including a promise that Cromwell had found himself agreeing to with the dying Katherine. He would look after the girl, then a sickly fifteen-year-old, and Mary has always known that he is on her side. But it’s a complex relationship. When they are in the same room, she looks at him constantly, as though knowing that all her fortunes are likely to be decided through him. And… and he lost two daughters in the plague some years back, is used to thinking about how different it is for girls to negotiate their way through the world compared with boys. His elder daughter, also Mary, had inherited a lot of his own qualities of quick intelligence, and he had been wondering what best to do for her when she died. Now… here’s Mary, not like his daughter at all—she’s naïve, clumsy and stubborn—but with qualities of her own he wants to help her to exploit. But she has a very long way to go, and after the reconciliation meeting he’s very happy that she’s going back to Hertfordshire, away from danger with her painfully, howlingly teething half-sister and the ladies in waiting.
And then comes Wreckage (II). What was I saying about sex and young women? It’s only a few weeks since Anne’s execution, and here’s another close relation of the king’s, his niece Margaret of Scotland, bringing new headaches. She’s lived in England most of her life, in the same sequestered house as Mary (I think), amongst the women. Cromwell is used to dealing with women, as we saw in Bring Up the Bodies—although the ladies who felt he trapped them into saying too much about Anne and her comings and goings are now wary of saying anything at all in his presence. He’s often frustrated by their fluttering, fussy responses to him, but at one stage, one of the ones he respects—it’s Reginald Pole’s mother, of all people—tells him not to underestimate them. I don’t think he does, having learnt a lot from having his elder daughter around, and when one of the sensible ones wants to speak to him about ‘Meg’, he listens.
Oh dear. A very minor player—so minor he hasn’t even got his own name, being Thomas ‘the Lesser’ to distinguish him from his half-brother Thomas Howard—writes appalling poetry and is a bit of a joke. But he’s the one who’s inveigled his way into Margaret’s affections, and her bed, her waiting-women keeping a lookout as if the experiences of the past months have taught them nothing. This is the problem with sequestered worlds, Cromwell thinks—they have no idea of how an unedited version of this news would erupt into more trials and executions if it were to leak out. Even as he talks to Margaret, he’s rewriting it. She considers herself married before God, and there’s no doubt at all what’s been going on—but, as Cromwell attempts to demonstrate to her, all that’s been exchanged are promises. No, she tells him. Yes, he replies. (I’m paraphrasing.)
I realise now why Mantel had Henry being all sentimental about Rafe’s love-match with Helen. Commoners are allowed to see qualities shining from lowly places—and it happened in the house of Thomas Cromwell, the personification of quality shining from a lowly place—but, as soon as the aristocracy is involved, it couldn’t be more different. This is what Meg doesn’t understand. Thomas the Lesser, ‘Tom Truth’ as he’s known, is from one of the noblest families in the land. What’s the problem? Silly girl. In Cromwell’s world of Realpolitik it’s a catastrophe. The niece of the king of England, choosing her own husband without consulting his wishes? We’ve been in this world long enough now to shake our heads in a kind of exasperated pity at her naivety, and before you know it she and Tom Truth are in the Tower. Cromwell has already drafted the Act that will forbid any such marriage and, at the end of Part 1, that’s where things stand. Henry is huffing and puffing, but he’s also feeling his age—that old leg wound is still troubling him—and he isn’t hurrying to heap the weight of more deaths on to his immortal soul.
Henry had been on a honeymoon trip to Dover, but he’s back now and other matters are pressing. By the end of Part 1, Fitzroy isn’t one of these—having become ill in about May or June, he’s dead by late July. It does become another worry for Henry, in fact, as one of his three supposedly illegitimate children dies to leave—what? Only the possibility that there will be a happy outcome from nights spent with Jane. But, after a dark night of the soul near the end of this section, Henry wonders whether God simply does not intend him ever to have a male heir who survives into adulthood. Fitzroy had been seventeen, only outlived, so far, by Mary. Henry’s mood is another concern for Cromwell, and he shields him from the view of the courtiers until the dark mood passes. It doesn’t help Henry that he’s had to give up riding for the time being, the long-awaited summer of hunting having to be confined to his waiting for others to chase deer and boar into his sight. Where’s the fun in that?
This novel is the last of the three, of course, and the reader knows what none of the characters do about Cromwell’s long-term prospects. Mantel is keeping him uncomfortable and (I suspect like most readers) I don’t know if it’s any of the problems now arising that will lead to his downfall in four years’ time, or something that hasn’t appeared yet. One thing that’s certain is the contempt some of the aristocrats feel for him as a commoner. Mantel reminds us of it from time to time, as when he visits Fitzroy’s house to check that Henry’s orders are being carried out for a quiet removal of the body. They aren’t, but the galling moment comes when he speaks to the older Thomas Howard, now the Earl of Surrey. Having been rude to him for about two solid minutes, Surrey sobs. ‘He was my friend. But you, Cromwell, you would not understand it—the friendship that is amongst men of ancient lineage and noble blood.’ What’s a Putney boy to do? Nothing at all—except to notice that Surrey’s nose is running ‘like any stable-lad’s.’ Only the rich think they are different. Everybody else knows better.
Other headaches. There’s suddenly been a rumour put about that Cromwell has designs on Mary, planning to marry her and, in that way, attaining the throne of England. We know as well as he does that it’s nonsense. Only non-aristocrats could ever believe he would come withing a million miles of such a goal, but it’s still a worry. Other people don’t understand things as he does, can’t see what nonsense such a rumour is. But life goes on, and he has conversations with the people he needs to. Reginal Pole’s mother, long reconciled to the Tudors and having lived comfortably on a royal pension for years, tells him she has no knowledge of what her son thinks he’s doing. She might be telling the truth, he thinks, but she’s also going to protect him as best she can. Which, of course, won’t save him. Henry has made it clear that he would like to hear of Reginald Pole’s death, and Cromwell has the means to bring it about….
He talks to the new queen, liking her unselfconscious, unobtrusive ease with him. There had been talk at the start of the marriage that she had been surprised by Henry’s demands as a lover—Anne, the story goes, had taught him plenty—but nobody’s talking that way now. Why does Jane want to talk to Cromwell now? Reassurance, mainly. These are just people, trying to make sense of their lives in times that are never certain—especially with anyone as volatile as Henry in the picture. His health is a frustration, his sense that God is against him is a worry for Cromwell—and the members of the Privy Council are starting to become unsettled by his unpredictable ways. When he stands behind them, so that they have to get up and kick away their chairs or stools… are they supposed to turn to face him and kneel? Cromwell thinks that would possibly be best—and, when challenged, explains that he doesn’t because he’s always with the king and wasn’t trained to kneel all day. He’s not Wolsey.
Wolsey. He’s never far from Cromwell’s thoughts, just as he wasn’t in Bring Up the Bodies. Part of his motivation in that novel was to avenge his death, as he checks off the men who had brought him down. Now, it’s more complicated. Some men who dragged Wolsey down are still living, but Cromwell isn’t contemplating any continued vendetta. But they are a constant reminder to him of how fortunes can go up as well as down. He discusses with somebody, maybe one of his own men or maybe one of the women, different proverbs relating to the Wheel of Fortune. He dismisses the old clichés, but he’s seen the truth of too often to rest easy. These are very uncertain times, and the ghosts in the walls are no real comfort. Stitching gets unpicked, stonework bearing Henry and Anne’s intertwining initials gets replaced, but there’s a limit to how much history can be excised. There are too many people, living and dead, clamouring to be remembered.
Part 2—I, Augmentation, II, The Five Wounds and III, Vile Blood
All three section titles have double meanings. One refers to the national politics that are always Cromwell’s main concern, and the other is personal. Augmentation, for example, is about the increase of revenues from the gradual selling-off of Church properties and land, but it’s also about the augmentation of Cromwell’s own power and range. Because for a while—it turns out to be a very short while—it’s business as usual. The backwash from Tom Truth and Meg’s little caper is no longer on Cromwell’s ‘to do’ list, although they must still be in the Tower as Part 2 opens…
…so he has time to repay a few old debts for services rendered to Henry. For this short section, Cromwell is at the top of his game. He’s at the top of everything, despite the way the aristocracy might chafe, dividing up confiscated lands and properties as he sees fit. There seems to be very little that isn’t in his gift—OK, it’s in Henry’s gift really, even if to the casual observer like you and me, that amounts to the same thing…. Except if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that there can be nothing casual about anything. Does Cromwell ever forget it? He’s only human, after all, and he has grown to like his little comforts. Or not so little. He doesn’t go in for showy dress—he won’t need to buy a new outfit for an upcoming funeral in the next section—and he doesn’t have an army of servants. But he likes nice places to live in, and a warm fire as summer shades into autumn.
As I said, his peace is short-lived. In The Five Wounds he’s brought up short with a terrific jolt. I can’t be the only reader who’s forgotten all about Wolsey’s illegitimate daughter Dorothea, in a nunnery and now floating to the top of Cromwell’s consciousness. Why does he go to see her? I forget, beyond the fact that he needs to make sure she’s going to remain safe no matter what happens. He often does this, arranging things for women left stranded by circumstances beyond their control. He had been to see Bess Darrell in Part 1, the woman left pregnant by Thomas Wyatt, the only one of Anne’s possible lovers who survived to tell the tale—not that he would dream of telling any tales at all now. It now turns out she was ‘mistaken’ about the pregnancy, but that’s OK. She’s sorted, and she’s something else ticked off his to do list….
Dorothea Clancey, as she’s known, is a different story. Cromwell goes to the convent at Shaftesbury where she lives, taking books and a handkerchief with St Dorothea-related motifs and flowers embroidered by Rafe’s wife Helen. And he slowly starts to realise that she has a big problem with the whole idea of a meeting with him at all. It turns into my favourite set-piece encounter of the novel—until the next one—for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, there’s Cromwell’s growing disorientation as he realises he’s speaking to someone who seems to hold a diametrically different opinion of him from what he had expected. He doesn’t start to splutter, but he finds himself saying things he didn’t intend. In particular, after she’s rejected the idea of suitable marriages to different men he names, he puts himself forward. Oh dear. By the time he’s doing his best to back-track—’you find my person defective’—it’s already much too late. ‘Your person is not defective. At least, not so defective as your nature and your deeds.’
We’ve never seen this before. It’s as though Cromwell’s never seen this before either, and he’s so completely wrong-footed he has no idea how to deal with it—especially once he realises what the problem really is. He has mentioned how her father understood him fully, and it’s her cue to come out with the hammer-blow: ‘He understood everything. He understood you betrayed him.’ What? What? She thinks he, Wolsey’s good and faithful servant, was responsible for bringing about the cardinal’s death… and it’s hard for the reader not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for him. It’s Mantel’s masterstroke in this scene. What is Cromwell’s proof, in his own mind, that he loved Wolsey as a second father? Why, those men he hounded to their deaths when it was expedient to do so in order to bring down Anne Boleyn. We remember the way he had ticked them off, paw by paw, as the men who paraded the pantomime monster of Wolsey as a hell-bound beast, revelling in his downfall. Well, they’re not revelling now—and nor is the musician Mark, ‘a feeble child’ as he remembers him now, the one he had thought of setting free.
After Dorothea has given him back the books and the handkerchief—he had been proud of the embroidery before being made to feel her dripping disdain—Rafe is shocked by how bad he looks as he leaves her room. As Rafe tries to comfort him, Cromwell carries on ticking off his proofs to himself that she has grievously wronged him—and, because we’ve been not only his mind but his mindset for so long now, we’re with him. This is the man who, by his own admission, sent a ‘child’ to his death because… because what? Because, as he muses on it now, ‘I thought, no, it is his turn to suffer.’ Did he do it all out of the kind of loyalty that means something? Well, yes, and we get that. And we also get that in the moral scheme of things, it’s meaningless.
And yet. Mantel not only knows we’re on Cromwell’s side, she knows we’re not sure about this. Without any prompting from her, we’re questioning what the moral compass is, standing alongside Cromwell as he muses on his own sinfulness. It isn’t a matter of his knowing he does wrong. He keeps England afloat, he bears the taunts of men who are inferior to him in every way except birth, he looks after the king… and what credit does he get? It’s enough to make a grown man weep. His humiliation is on a domestic scale but, in its way, it’s devastating. If he could be so wrong about what Dorothea thought of him—he understands almost immediately that none of his proofs of loyalty are worth a hill of beans to her—what else might he be wrong about? It’s another question that doesn’t get asked directly, but it’s hanging in the air. We’ve known for a long time that there are no certainties in his world and, as if we needed it, here’s further proof. And then suddenly…
…the scale of events isn’t personal or domestic at all. For the first time in the novel, we’re a long way outside the closed, tapestried interiors of Austin Friars or Whitehall—and a long way from Cromwell’s consciousness—as the scope widens to include the whole of England. A rebellion in the north is going to exercise everybody’s wits for the rest of Part 2 and beyond—but Mantel is a tactful enough author not to recalibrate the scale of the narrative too quickly. She starts it small, in ‘alehouses,’ as a rumour spreads that Henry is dead. This is Lincolnshire, where the drinkers ‘claim that the councillors are keeping it a secret, so they can continue to levy taxes in the king’s name.’ Rafe, reporting it to Cromwell, doesn’t even try to stifle a yawn—he’s been busy with the king for night after night, because nobody sleeps until Henry sleeps.
And, for a couple of pages, it’s as though nothing’s really been happening in Lincolnshire. The conversation ends as Cromwell has planned to meet Chapuys, and he downplays the King’s troubles in the north as they come to another of the thorns in Cromwell’s side, Mary. Henry could solve that little problem, and nip any rebellion in the bud, Chapuys suggests, with a carefully selected match for her. Selected by Chapuys’s boss, that is…. But that isn’t going to happen and, in that way this author occasionally has, we’re off and away again. What voice is this she’s using? ‘You know those nights, in market towns. A little money jangling in the pocket…’ and soon the young men are ‘daring each other to leap a ditch or break into an empty house. If it rained they’d go in.’ But it doesn’t rain, they don’t go in all night, and next day… and so on. The rest of this section is about how in London everyone begins to take it seriously. Archbishop Cranmer is worried for his own safety—he, like Cromwell, is seen as a traitor to the former status quo of a pre-Protestant golden age that never existed—and there are murmurs of local dissatisfactions a long way from Lincolnshire….
Who to send north? Henry has to be discouraged from setting off to show the rebels he’s as alive as they are, and Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk is put in charge. Norfolk is champing at the bit, and the meeting Cromwell has with him, helped by Wriothesley, Richard Riche and Gregory, becomes a comic set piece. They have to tell him he isn’t needed, partly because Henry hasn’t forgiven him for getting Fitzroy’s funeral wrong and he’s a great one for bearing grudges. The comedy is mainly about Norfolk’s total inability not to bring up the subject of Cromwell’s low birth, and fail even more miserably not to be totally crass about it. He isn’t as bad as his son, but you can see where Surrey gets it from.
Before that, Henry had been defending Cromwell among the councillors, because he’s one of the bogey-men for the rebels. He’s the one who is taxing them, stealing Church property, persuading Henry to do terrible things…. The king is so annoyed he goes too far in defending him. ‘If I say Cromwell is a lord, he is a lord. And if I say Cromwell’s heirs are to follow me and rule England, by God they will do it, or I shall come out of my grave and want to know why.’ It’s not hard to imagine how he would have used Twitter if it had been around in the 16th Century…. But Cromwell hates that kind of talk, and the inevitable innuendoes it leads to. It’s no accident that when the rebels’ banner is referred to—the Five Wounds of the title—Cromwell lists the pains he has suffered. ‘Five wounds. Wife. Children. Master. Dorothea with her needle, straight between his ribs.’ That’s only four, so far. ‘One withheld? A man might survive them if there were evenly spaced, and he knew the direction from which they would come.’
And then we’re into Vile Blood.
I just re-read this third section of Part 2, and… I’m becoming more and more impressed. I think what I like most is the way Mantel makes use of a range of authorial voices, and I’ll come back to those in a minute. But there are multiple narratives going on now, which Mantel feeds us in packets, usually of about three or four pages each. There are the events of the last few months of 1536—each named section has dates attached—which are mainly concerned with the rebellion in the north, and European interest in how this might influence any decision about what to do with Mary. Cromwell, of course, is finding a path through these difficulties, and Mantel’s presentation of him and his duties only gets better. But he’s also having to deal with the impossible position he’s in, a commoner who is a hate figure not only amongst the aristocracy but also, for his ‘vile blood’, in the rebels’ imagination. He is certain he is doing as good a job as anybody possibly could, commoner or not… but that doesn’t stop him being assailed by vivid memories, usually as he tries to fall asleep, of the coarse realities of his childhood. Meanwhile…
…as Henry is the subject of preposterous rumours both amongst rebellious peasants and European royalty, we’re getting reminders of how, in the 16th Century, kings really were perceived as a race apart. Mantel knows all about the myth-making that went on—I remember how in Wolf Hall she presented us with ‘An Occult History of Britain’ going back millennia, offering the kind of mythic context the Tudors loved—and kingship is at the core of it all. She’s a clever enough author to also remind us—I think it’s during a conversation Cromwell is having with Chapuys—that this particular king is only on the throne because of the actions of a rag-tag force of a couple of thousand. It’s no coincidence that Henry still measures the worth of the nobility and their families according how they performed at the Battle of Bosworth. After all, God was clearly on the side of the Tudors. More about kingship later…
…but I was thinking about those different voices that Mantel calls on, almost different authorial personas. We were getting something new in the previous section as we were offered that first inkling of trouble ahead: ‘You know those nights, in market towns….’ It’s the first four words that set up a new relationship between author and reader: ‘You know those nights’—Do we know? Which nights? Who’s speaking to us here? Who are we, that, for the sake of the story, we know about the way things are? It’s as though Hilary Mantel is going back to the first principles of novel-writing. She assumes the role of urbane person of the world, somebody who knows what’s what. Cervantes did it in Don Quixote, Henry Fielding did it in Tom Jones, this show of ease as the author lets us know that we’re in safe hands—he (or she) knows the score, and lets us know we’ll know it too if we go along with it. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ writes Jane Austen, and we’re captivated by the confident tone. This author knows what she’s talking about.
It’s an unusual style for a contemporary author, except when using the voice of a first-person narrator—and I don’t think that accidental. The sense we get from Fielding or Austen of an easy, relaxed agreement about how things are, often lightly overlaid with irony, doesn’t sit well in a literary world in which it’s a long time since there’s been an easy consensus about anything. Serious writers don’t write like this any more… unless they want to explore some new possibilities. Somehow, Mantel is incorporating conventions that we associate with first-person narrators into her usually strict third-person (very) limited narration. She seems to be moving beyond what has become her favoured idiolect for describing her sixteenth century world.
The two-page package of information we get at the opening of Vile Blood doesn’t really sound as though it’s been written by a 21st Century author. It sounds as though one of her politicians is saying it, perhaps Cromwell himself. ‘Aske: he is a petty gentleman, but the king places him at once….’ That’s the opening line. The next paragraph opens with ‘We have all grown up on tales of Jack Straw and John Amend-All….’ The next: ‘In those days the king of England was a child…’ then ‘It is a hundred and fifty years since that broil…’ ‘The common folk of England live on songs and tales and alehouse jokes….’ And so on. 300-odd pages into the novel, Mantel is consolidating what we’ve sensed from the start. This inclusive-sounding, consensual viewpoint doesn’t feel like the consciousness of a single mover and shaker in 1536, but like the mindset of all of them.
Does this happen again during Vile Blood? More than once, but the scene that stuck in my mind comes near the end. Things are winding down for Christmas, and Cromwell is spending a little time at home. Mantel has got into the habit of marking the passage of the seasons through carefully-placed references to nature, and it’s time for the pruning of the apple-trees—but not before this: ‘At Stepney, hedgerow berries are humble jewels, bright as beads of blood.’ The image could be straight out of a 16th Century poem. Then Cromwell is out with his gardeners: ‘Do you stand back, sir, and watch the shape as we cut.’ At first, ‘we’ are the gardeners, ‘the sweat running in channels inside our jerkins.’ Then they have finished, and hope for a good result from the north, where Cromwell’s nephew Richard is with those leading the forces representing the king. ‘Please God all our builders and our cooks will be back with us for the feast, and Richard in his glory.’
But that ‘we’ starts to become ambiguous. ‘Indoors, we unlock the room called Christmas, with its costumes…. We fit together the spikes of the great star that hangs in the hall.’ Who is this ‘we’ now? Straight after, the narrative is definitely from Cromwell’s point of view, as memorable moments occur to him: ‘What survives of the year past? Rafe’s garden at midsummer’ and maybe four or five other little epiphanies. I can’t think of another living author who would even attempt that segue from the ‘we’ of the gardeners, through a collective ‘we’ and right into Cromwell’s mind, all in the space of a few lines. Other writers aim to create a believable historical world, but Mantel wants us to think about actually being a person living nearly 500 years ago.
I remember what I’d liked best in Wolf Hall was her ability to get inside the mindset of the time. The way Cromwell, in particular, had to come to terms with age-old Catholic precepts being suddenly deleted was genuinely moving. Before, he could imagine his wife and daughters in Purgatory, and that prayers would help. Suddenly—gone, with nothing left for him to offer, and therefore no hope…. Now, in Vile Blood, Mantel is going for something almost as ambitious with regard to that 16th Century idea of kingship. Henry is a man, albeit one with uniquely regal expectations, so we get separate sections detailing the routine of his being undressed and put to bed at night, and being got up and dressed again in the morning. There’s even a quite extraordinary paragraph in which, as he chooses to visit his wife’s bed, the gentleman of his bedchamber ‘try not to think of the maidenly queen, her blushes and sighs, and the king, his grunts of pleasure, his sweat while he ruts.’ Thanks for not thinking about that, guys.
But this isn’t prurience, it’s Mantel revelling in the paradox at the heart of kingship as the Tudors understood it. Henry’s physical, corporeal humanity, from the nagging pain in his leg to his grunts of sexual pleasure, is what we have to understand categorically does not define him. This, Cromwell states explicitly, is what Anne Boleyn got wrong. She thought she was only dealing with a man. We see the man, all the time—there are running jokes about his vanity, his naïve belief in his own wisdom, his almost childish restlessness when things become dull—but Cromwell tells Rafe and Wriothesley that kingship really does make a human being into something different. He wonders how this happens, this mystic change at the moment he is anointed at his coronation. Anyone who has lived in England all their life knows about this as a kind of traditional superstition, but even for a complete pragmatist like Cromwell in 1536 it’s simply the truth. That’s how Mantel presents it. No questions asked, Henry is much more than just a man.
I don’t know how many different metaphors there are in this section for what defines a king, but it’s often at the heart of what Henry wants to talk about. This means Cromwell has to play an extraordinary, endless game of keeping one step ahead. He can’t let up for a minute, constantly has to deal with the behaviour of this vain, needy man whilst acknowledging, even insisting upon, the mystical basis of his power. If ever he catches himself forgetting it—he realises on one occasion that he has given an automatic, almost absentminded reply to one of Henry’s points—he immediately takes steps to put it right.
Two of the other things that are going on give these ideas of kingship a particular context, the rebellion in the north and Cromwell’s ever more insistent memories of his own childhood. ‘Vile blood’, a term from alchemy, refers to Cromwell’s supposed use of the dark arts to beguile Henry into bad policies—but, more tellingly, it’s all about his low birth. We’ve seen it often enough from Norfolk and his son—and plenty of others over the course of the three novels—that the son of a blacksmith cannot ever stand on the same level as the nobly born. There will always be vile blood in those veins, however clever a politician he might be. The dense interweaving of prejudices and more other motives, personalities with their own agendas, fast-moving events that Cromwell has to deal with hour-by-hour—when recent news is unreliable and old news is stale—can be mind-boggling. It’s why I had to read it twice.
But that’s enough of all that. What’s actually happening? Most importantly is the rebellion—which, in terms of popular feeling, isn’t entirely confined to the north. At one point someone, possibly the narrator, muses on how it is possible for a rumour at one end of the country can be heard at the other end more or less straight away. But the immediate military problem is that the rebels can be numbered in their tens of thousands, far more than the number of men that can be raised from the nobility’s own armies and the general population.
Eventually, Henry bites back his current dislike of Norfolk and allows him, finally, to march north, but by this time the most urgent matter is how to avoid direct fighting. The seasons are on the king’s side. November is cold, the momentum of the early days has all gone, and the leaders don’t really want to fight anyway. For them, the issue isn’t the day-to-day hardship of life, the ones that lead to the dusting-down of folk-heroes like Jack Straw and John Amend-All, but political and religious. Aske sees himself as a petitioner, and has sent messengers to London to make this clear. Norfolk might be champing at the bit, but he isn’t making any of the decisions. Despite the several urgent messages he sends to the king every day—carefully vetted by Wriothesley, who is becoming more and more a key Council-member—he is not going to be allowed to start any fighting.
Even before winter sets in, cynics have been remarking on how it will end in the way these things always do, with the gentry being let off after pleading that they were forced to take part by a mob that would have had their blood otherwise, and with a few commoners hanged. The stories of the ringleaders of earlier revolts are trotted out, how they were drawn and quartered, their body-parts distributed around wherever they originated from. By the time Cromwell is assembling his Christmas decorations the reader, like the politicians, assumes this one will end like all the others.
But it’s been a scare for Henry, brought him face-to-face with all his insecurities. He might be surrounded by men who tell him, sometimes genuinely, that they believe in all the changes that have come about since the break with Rome. The Pope is no more than a foreign prince aiming to extend his territory and his revenues—this is always how Cromwell describes him to Chapuys—and most Catholic priests and monks are sinful and greedy. This is received opinion now…. But it doesn’t stop Henry having his doubts. He remembers frankly his love for Katherine, ponders ruefully on how he has ‘bastardised’ two daughters, can’t help but wonder if he’s always done the right thing. It’s Cromwell’s job, of course, to keep these unhelpful thoughts under wraps. As he tells Rafe and Wriothesley, when Henry is in a dark mood it’s soon over, so long as you don’t engage him in conversation.
And whilst some of these figures are definitely the central characters now—we look forward to the next cynical dinner with Chapuys or the next head-to-head with Norfolk—there are plenty of others that Cromwell has to deal with. Like the queen and her ladies-in-waiting, every one of whom seems to have her own agenda. She, the queen, makes an impassioned speech to Henry, in public, about the rebels’ cause—but, for obvious reasons, it’s easy for Cromwell to bring the king round to the idea that it’s all down to her compassionate nature. Meanwhile, inevitably, he wonders who might have put the idea in her head…. Meanwhile, the scions of the Plantagenets are starting to scent blood, however much they pretend otherwise, like Pole’s mother the Countess of Salisbury. Robert Barnes, a cleric who has contact with the condemned Tyndale—is he still alive, or has he been finished off yet, somewhere in Antwerp?—has to put in the Tower for his own good after he gives a radical sermon at the funeral of a murdered friend. And so on, and on. The murdered man had been shot only five minutes from Cromwell’s own house then, at Christmas-time, two innocent Frenchmen are attacked on the street and only one survives.
There’s plenty more, but… enough. More than enough.
Part 3—I, The Bleach Fields and the first half of II, The Image of the King
Is it my imagination, or is this novel becoming more focused on the visual? Maybe it always was, and the other senses are given their due anyway… but, for instance, I don’t remember so much scrutiny of the look of the food—Chapuys muses on the brownness of one of the dishes served by Cromwell’s faithful cook and, after the cook himself has admitted to a cod dish’s yellowy whiteness, the narrator has it that ‘it looks as if they’ve sicked it up.’ And that first subtitle, The Bleach Fields. There are no such things—it’s a foreigner’s attempt to name the meadows where women dry their laundry—but it passes into Cromwell’s visual imagination. At the end of the section, he is picturing the soul of William Tyndale, confirmed as having been burnt at the stake. He is ‘in the bleach fields, his human sins whited-out, speaking from within a haze of smoke.’ The fade to white is cinematic.
The foreigner is a woman he notices amongst the usual ‘crowd of petitioners’ outside his house on two consecutive days. She isn’t claiming to be a part of his extended family, as a lot of people do, but he’s struck by how much she ‘looks like a Cromwell,’ as he puts it to himself. He’s curious, invites her in—and she tells him she is Jenneke, his daughter. She is struck by his favourite tapestry, one Mantel has described before, of the Queen of Sheba looking confidently out at the viewer. He knows the model must have been Anselma, his lover in Antwerp just before he quit European soil to make his way in England. She tells him she is looking at a portrait of her mother and, very quickly, he knows she is telling the truth. Everything she tells him about Anselma chimes with what he knows, and Jenneke gets his full attention for three separate chapters. He regrets that she has his looks rather than her mother’s.
Jenneke, we are told frankly in the list of characters, is Mantel’s invention. She’s there to bring Cromwell up to speed on information from the Low Countries that he hasn’t had so vividly first-hand before. Nor have we, so you can see why she’s here—and she’s also here to introduce another character, one Harry Phillips, a young man who would sell anybody at the right price. He’s the one who had Tyndale spirited away to a Calvinist council chamber, where his trial would be swift and the outcome, appropriately enough, predestined. At least somebody, I forget who, is able to ensure the death is quick. A strong tug on a chain around the neck is a mercy. Those famous last words of his, Jenneke assures Cromwell, were never spoken by him…. And I realise that this woman, for the duration of her brief cameo—she’s out of England again after 30-odd pages—is Mantel’s alter-ego. It’s another voice to add to all the others, and Mantel could be directing those wry remarks about Jenneke’s looks at herself. In this respect, this author is famously honest.
Something else she’s been able to get Jenneke’s help with is in filling more gaps in Cromwell’s biography. We know from earlier novels in the trilogy that he spent a long time as a young man in Italy, but not to the extent that by the time he reached Antwerp he was known as ‘the Italian.’ He had been trained as a skilled cook by his uncle in England, and his palate had been further refined there. Mantel is making him more of an all-round European. After Italy, he does his best to be at home in the chilly, candlelit indoor world of the Low Countries… and then he’s in England. But he remembers Italian light and the outdoor existence—I don’t think I mentioned calcio before, the anarchic games of football that could lead to broken bones and supposedly accidental stabbings. Perfect for a street boy from Putney—and a signal to jaded British readers in 2020 that closing ourselves off from our European connections might not necessarily be the best option available. (At the time of writing, the coronavirus crisis is making the departure of Britain from Europe seem ever more irrelevant, and I suspect that most of the sort of people who read Mantel would agree.)
So, having learnt a lot about Cromwell’s childhood in Part 2, and now we’re getting updates and added details about his European life from his teenage years onwards. We’re also getting updates on what’s going on in the early months of 1537. Interleaved with the Jenneke chapters in The Bleach Fields are details of how, by the New Year, Aske has been outmanoeuvred. He’s spent the whole Christmas period being cosseted by the court life, and returns north to bring the rebellion to a close while avoiding accusations of having had his head turned by the comfortable time he’s had. He can also bring the promise—not really a promise at all, of course—that Jane’s coronation will be in York in the summer, or by Michaelmas at the latest. Of course, the announcement of Jane’s pregnancy a couple of months later puts paid to the the idea. I’ll come back to that, because it governs almost everything from then on.
Gossip carries on about Cromwell wanting to marry Mary, or Meg, or whoever. At one point, he feels at ease enough to joke about marrying all of them—and he feels easy enough to let the existence of his daughter become common knowledge too. For months now, we’ve seen his position in court become ever more unassailable, and it’s like one long dramatic irony. He makes plans for his future—there’s a particularly well-proportioned and well-resourced monastic property in Kent, I think, that would be very pleasant for his retirement—and all the time, we know he’ll never see them. And all the time, Mantel keeps up what she’s always kept up, that ambiguous sympathy we have, if that’s the right word, for this man who, by the time he has his hands on the rebel leaders, is perfectly at ease about the executions that are taking place.
It’s another aspect of his 16th Century mindset. He isn’t going to be cruel, makes sure that the deaths are not agonising and that Henry is seen to be merciful…. ‘Assure him,’ he advises Wriothesley, still unused to the importance of tempering torture with kind words, ‘that whether or not he helps us, the king will pay his debts and look after his family: such small mercies can make a felon weep and break his will.’ This is a couple of months down the line, and they know that if they can round up the last ringleaders, the rebels are beaten. And it leads to my favourite passage regarding his pride, not only in the way he works but in something bigger:
‘In no other country could this happen. In the domains of François or Charles there would be no truces, negotiations or sessions of question and answer that stretch from Advent to Trinity. Once apprehended the noble suspects would be tortured and killed and the common dead would be butchered and lie under the open sky.’ How quickly matters of policy and what Cromwell regards as common sense are transformed into being part of the myth of England. We don’t need to ask whose voice this is. This is the consensus view, self-congratulatory and dismissive of others—and strong enough to have lasted down the centuries: the English have always thought everybody else is simply inferior.
Meanwhile, life goes on. For Cromwell that entails, among other things, a continuation of his day-to-day management of Henry and his vanities. There’s an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ scene in which French tailors dazzle the king with stuffs, and Cromwell has enough humanity left in him—and a deep knowledge of the rag trade—to know that they really need to sell him at least some of it. But he’s come to whichever palace or castle Henry is in now—he was at Windsor for months from the start of the failed insurrection—to talk about money, and Henry could spend enough on his own wardrobe to feed an army. He leads the tailors out of Henry’s presence, pretends to throw a fit, then allows certain purchases with a one-third discount. The tailors are relieved.
Money is an issue because suppressing the rebellion was not cheap. Norfolk might be a posturing toff, but he makes sure he pays his way on behalf of his men. And supplying even the relatively small numbers who could be mustered to march north costs a fortune. Meanwhile, other things are always just around the corner. Since Part 2, James of Scotland has been in France, finding himself a bride, and skewing the dynamic of international relations. Is he more likely or less to cause problems for Henry? Cromwell has decided less, but these things are never straightforward. They need to be ready, and they will only be ready if Cromwell is there, fixing it….
A different sort of fix is needed for Reginald Pole. After hearing about how Harry Phillips went about getting rid of Tyndale, Cromwell thinks he might be the very man to do something about Pole. As the winter has gone on, Pole’s star, as it were, has begun to wane. He had been made a cardinal in Part 2, and had felt that it was only a matter of time before he, with help from François or Charles or both, would be able to make his move against Henry. It’s turning out to have been a fantasy. Neither has either the money or the inclination to fight a foreign war—or if they do, it seems increasingly likely that it will be against each other. None of which, of course, stops Pole being seen as the king in waiting for English Catholics, and for rebels still hiding in hard-to-reach corners of the kingdom. It would be good to have him disappear.
By the early spring, Jane’s pregnancy is public knowledge. Mantel is good at showing how the earliest hints of it, at a time when Jane really, really doesn’t want anybody to know yet, become rumours and then the subject of court gossip. Those first rumours had been at the christening of some lady’s little boy, and Jane talks to Cromwell about the impossible position she’s in. Henry, as soon as he hears it, can think of nothing else, whereas Jane can only think about what can go wrong. What if it’s a girl? What if the pregnancy fails, as so many others have done for Henry? And meanwhile, the king is beset by doubts of a different kind. Is Jane really his wife? Will this child really be a legitimate heir? And, for both of them, Cromwell is there offering the kind of professional solicitude that’s another part of his working day.
And what was I saying about dramatic irony? Henry, convinced that Cromwell has done a good job in ensuring there can be no possible quibbles this time, turns to him and away from the other courtiers. ‘I should know you by now, eh, Crumb? If ever a man was thorough, you are that man.’ And there’s more. ‘The king squeezes Cromwell’s shoulder. There is a new magic in the royal touch. It transmits a vision, a vision of what England could be.’ And, for the time being, Cromwell knows he’s a part of it. It’s no wonder that he makes plans for the future. Even such a pragmatist as he is must feel unassailable. After all, what would Henry be without him?
To the end of Part 3—II, The Image of the King (cont.) and III, Broken on the Body
Broken on the Body is about the birth of Jane and Henry’s son in early October—Mantel hurries us through the months now—and Jane’s death a couple of weeks later. Part 3 has taken us well beyond the half-way point of the novel, and it’s hard not to be focused on the transitoriness of life. I’ve mentioned often enough now how we know what Cromwell doesn’t—but that he does know about the nature of Fortune’s wheel…. Except I can’t help thinking about an understanding that he led Rafe or Call-me to reach some time ago about what people really do fully know. How much does Henry know about Cranmer’s wife, for instance? Or about Cromwell’s daughter Jenneke? The conclusion they can’t help reaching is that sometimes he knows but chooses not to know—and I wonder if it’s the same with Cromwell. More than once in these chapters he’s been thinking about where he’ll retire to, and Henry even asks to him his thoughts about it. And yet…
…that wheel of Fortune, those niggling doubts about his own security. All through Part 3 he’s been getting things right, for instance making sure not only that the rebels are routed, but that there will be no trouble from that quarter in the foreseeable future. The right people are punished—Mantel deals in a sentence or two with the way some are hanged and some beheaded, then how Cromwell looks kindly (I’m not sure if that’s the word she uses) on a request from Aske, I think, that he will be fully dead before any evisceration takes place. But one of the many things he knows about Henry is that he never seems able to forget about any failures. This most insecure of kings sees the continuing threat posed by Reginald Pole, still alive and now heading back to Italy, as a failure. Not good.
In fact, Cromwell is glad he’s going there—the Italians are far less efficient about investigating unaccountable deaths on their soil than countries to the north, where Pole had been trying to make trouble. But Henry doesn’t know about that—he really doesn’t know about anything like that—so Cromwell is not surprised that he isn’t made a duke or an earl when there’s a round of new elevations to celebrate the birth of the new Prince Edward. Is this a sign? Hard to tell. He had recently had the previously unheard-of honour of being made a Knight of the Garter—you should have seen the ceremonial, the representatives of the oldest families present and acknowledging him—but… I can’t remember who it is who says it doesn’t seem enough, somehow. He should have been made an earl at least.
And all the time, I can’t help thinking how Mantel wants me to think, understanding this mindset in which a swift death to avoid further torture counts as a mercy. Cromwell is completely at home in this world, and with its practices and logic that seem utterly alien to us. And Mantel is always getting us to see how he plays the game. The Earl of Surrey, the one whose utter disdain for Cromwell we know all about, is at Mary’s house at the same time as a lot of others. Soon, for some reason I forget, he and Edward Seymour are squaring up for a fight, Seymour having reached the limit of how much posturing he can take from this preening snob. Richard Cromwell joins in, on Seymour’s side, and soon his uncle manoeuvres things—paradoxically, by seeming to discourage any quarrelling—so that Surrey draws a knife and accidentally wounds Mathew, a young member of Cromwell’s crew. (Surrey recognises him, but not with that name, because will have been on spying duties in some house or other.)
This is great. Now Cromwell can remind him that the ancient punishment for drawing blood in the precincts of a royal house is the removal of a hand. Mantel describes the appalling ritual, with a butcher in the surgeon’s role, and other lowly tradesman there to cauterise the wound, take away the offending body-part, wrap things up… but it’s in the context of Cromwell wanting to ensure that it doesn’t happen. He will need to get Henry into a forgiving mood, something he actually manages to do. He is able to suggest to Henry that they should let the young man stew a while, let him think it really will happen—but, counselling mercy, he can remind the king how the removal of the sword hand is worse than death for a nobleman. But now he’s worked it so that he now has a hold over Surrey—he’s still, it seems, at the top of his game. Maybe.
What else has been happening? That appearance of Edward Seymour reminds me that he and Cromwell had been in negotiation for the hand of Seymour’s sister, recently widowed—and that we get an early sign, perhaps, of Cromwell’s powers no longer being at their peak. He’s perfectly successful at negotiating a deal—but it isn’t until she comes to meet him that he realises that he hadn’t made it clear that the negotiation wasn’t for her to marry him, but his son Gregory. It’s a moment of farce and, if I’m honest, I didn’t believe a word of it. Just as I’m not convinced that the other great mistake of his life, his misunderstanding of what Wolsey’s daughter thought of him, has led to the disappearance of his (literally) ghostly mentor, the cardinal. Sometimes you just have to take it or leave it.
Mantel usually gets things exactly right. Henry has not been in the best of spirits for most of Part 3, so for Cromwell it’s been something of a mission to keep up his morale. The Image of the King is, partly, about a portrait undertaken by ‘Hans’. He, Holbein, has become a member of Mantel’s cast among all the others, and she uses British readers’ familiarity with some of his most famous drawings and portraits to add to the visual dimension of the novel. She reverse-engineers the sketching and composition of a group portrait that is now lost except as a copy, but whose most striking figure, Henry, is caught in that pose of his that can only be called iconic. No weakness in those calves, real pride in that stance, that full-on stare, that proud ‘manhood’ with its little ribbon. Hans tells Cromwell he had been right to suggest that it be directly facing the viewer. He always does get it right, that’s the point.
And, throughout it all, those little reminders of the perishability of the flesh. Henry does get a respite from the longstanding pain in his leg, perhaps partly because of his rising morale. But it hadn’t stopped him collapsing earlier in the year, in full view of some important councillors, and only saved from a complete fall by Cromwell’s quick reaction. When Lisle is over from Calais, on one of his occasional visits to petition for land and estates befitting him as Henry’s uncle, Cromwell asks him about when that pregnancy of his wife’s will ever end. Shame-facedly, Lisle tells him that the pregnancy has ‘gone,’ although his wife is still big-bellied and now distraught with it. This is before the birth of Edward, and Cromwell has to be very careful about how Henry can be prevented from seeing it as yet another of the ill omens he sees in everything. When he does hear, he’s straight back to Katherine’s deceptions, how she would pretend that she was pregnant when she wasn’t, persuading poor, unworldly little him that everything was perfectly fine. Women, eh?
Women. There’s a rare encomium on them from this author who is fastidious about keeping her own gender out of it. It comes at the opening of Broken on the Body. ‘What is a woman’s life? Do not think, because she is not a man, she does not fight. … her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth.’ Some lines further on: ‘we do not make heroes of women mangled in the struggle to give birth. If she seems so injured that she can have no more children, we commiserate with the husband.’ Is this Mantel’s voice? Or is it simply another of many at her disposal? In the context of a novel set in the 16th Century, with Jane’s long labour and subsequent death yet to be described, the voice feels sympathetic. But Mantel is reminding us how it was, that’s all, and it doesn’t feel partisan. As at other times, the reader might wonder who the ‘we’ might be in ‘we do not make heroes of women….’ Not Mantel herself, certainly, nor any other 21st Century sensibility. I love how she keeps doing this.
Part 1—Nonsuch, Corpus Christi and Inheritance
And I suspect that’s not only my problem. Keeping track. I think it might be Cromwell’s problem too, as he begins to tell those closest to him that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for him to keep all the plates spinning. That isn’t how he puts it, but I do remember him telling Rafe, or Wriothesley, or somebody that he tried to take last Michaelmas Day as a holiday and, in effect, Henry just didn’t let it happen.
(Meanwhile… Mantel didn’t know that her new novel would be published at the beginning of the gravest world crisis since perhaps the Second World War, and that it would cast a very strong light on the lack of competence of elected politicians. But, when difficult things are asked of them, it couldn’t be clearer that they haven’t a clue where to start. They are used to having people who can do that for them… and you can see where I’m going with this. It’s been interesting in these past few weeks to read about the political world of the 16th Century, especially when so much of it is to do with the people charged with carrying out the demands of a preening narcissist like Henry. Almost absolute power, with all responsibility for getting things done delegated to the ‘vicegerent’ and his underappreciated staff. Oh yes.)
I’m genuinely starting to wonder whether the confusing impression of too much going on at once—I gave up trying to keep a handle on it all—is deliberate on Mantel’s part. That combination of Cromwell’s impossibly busy life with a growing sense of the onward rush of time—a year goes by during Part 4, and we all know where we’re heading—makes the details seem less important than they did at first. And is Cromwell less sure-footed now, or is it simply that the torrent of events really is too much for any man? Mantel keeps reminding us that however brutal we might find 16th Century notions of what is morally acceptable, Cromwell is still human. The failure of that meeting with Wolsey’s daughter has gone beyond merely unsettling him. He’s lost a part of his identity because the man he did everything for, and whose spirit guided him after death, has deserted him. The horrific truth might be—and this is why it’s so impossible to live with—Wolsey himself thought he had betrayed him. It’s enough to knock anybody off-balance.
Meanwhile, Henry is spending a lot of time ruminating on who might be his next wife, and both French and Spanish princesses and duchesses have been suggested. Somebody makes the joke that it’s a plot to keep Hans in work, although I don’t think he’s actually made portraits of more than one or two. A certain Anna has been mentioned, sister of the German Duke of Cleves, and we know she will be the one eventually. But not yet, so various ambassadors can make their bids. Henry had briefly thought about marrying a Frenchwoman, the daughter of the Duke of Vendôme already betrothed to James of Scotland. He doesn’t think that such a detail is of any consequence, but he’s too late to act on his whim. James, having suffered the disappointment of his first wife having died before her 17th birthday—she was the daughter of François, but sickly—is not disappointed this time.
There is a huge amount of politicking around the pros and cons of this marriage or that. A marriage to a Frenchwoman would, everybody hopes, upset the new ‘Ten Year Treaty’ between France and Spain—as would, of course, a marriage to a Spaniard. Ambassadors come back and forth, and Chapuys would be enjoying himself if Cromwell didn’t keep dropping hints about the dirty tricks knows he’s guilty of with regard to undermining Henry’s position as head of the Church in England. Specifically, Chapuys’s name has been linked to those plotting a return to Catholicism by way of an invasion, or some other way of getting Mary to be declared Henry’s legitimate heir. Of course, Edward is the new heir but, as we all know by now, the lives of infants are far from secure. That’s another story—and it hasn’t stopped the ambassadors being almost as interested in putting forward husbands for Mary as they are in finding a wife for Henry.
Not that this is the most important thing for Henry at this time—there are palaces to be built—specifically, Nonsuch—and he looks forward to the summer hunting season while the ulcer in his leg seems not to be too painful. But Mantel has always wanted to make us realise that he isn’t defined by his shortcomings. He might still be capable of behaving like an overgrown child sometimes, but the mythology of royalty has rubbed off on him. He wants to be good at it, wants to be remembered as just, even wise, and he really does spend time debating with his courtiers (including Cromwell) what that entails. Cromwell is always aware that it’s a good idea to imply that there’s a lot for Henry to teach him, but it isn’t all about flattery. It’s about encouraging him to take his role seriously, never to let him forget that whatever he does has huge consequences.
This comes into play with regard to one of the most testing issues facing all of them. What is English Protestantism? Why, despite Chapuys’s banter, is it definitely not the same as Lutheranism? How can it be guaranteed as the country’s religion for all time? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and to an extent they rely on the conclusions that Henry himself has reached. Some images in churches are deemed acceptable, but any hint of Catholic idolatry is anathema. There must be no candles placed before sculptures of saints, for instance, no offerings made to them—and, of course, so-called holy relics are taken away and destroyed. So are certain shrines, in particular that of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. The narrative voice presents Thomas as a traitor, his beatification a political act by a corrupt regime in Rome… and, on the way, we are told the well-known story, by no means disapprovingly, of the way Beckett was butchered. We are also told of the highly unglamorous remains that are discovered when his casket is opened—including a second skull to be added to the one the monks already hold in reverence, with silver seams and rivets to patch up the fragments mangled by Edward’s men. All to be expected—and Cromwell makes sure he keeps the old bones so no mischief can come of any accidental exhumation.
Religion never goes away. It’s there in the marriage negotiations, it’s there in the ongoing downsizing, destruction or repurposing of abbeys and other church holdings, and it’s there in the continuing thorn in Cromwell’s side, Reginald Pole the would-be king. During Part 4, which covers 1538, Pole is still at large in Italy, and Henry is still wondering how that can be. Cromwell decides that if things aren’t going his way on the continent—he suspects Pole is getting tip-offs—at least he can do something in England. He moves in on Pole’s immediate family—his brothers and Margaret, the Countess of Salisbury—and on the Courtneys, distant relatives but all scions of the Plantagenet family. The campaign of wearing down their resistance gives Mantel the chance to show us Cromwell in interrogation mode, and also his pride in the way he can break men without touching them. Asking the Tower’s gaoler for non-existent instruments of torture, and then for a mallet, which he smashes into the wall, allows him to contrast his own leniency with the brutality of foreigners. We’ve been here before, but it’s still fun.
It isn’t really fun, of course. The man he had been leaning on might have been let off—not to live his life as it was before, but at least to live his life—but he implicates others who aren’t so lucky. And when John Lambert, a cleric who’s been annoying Henry for a long time, comes into view again, we know how it’s going to end. Lambert, much closer to Lutheranism, won’t have it that the wine and bread of the sacrament are literally the blood and body of Christ—referenced in the central Corpus Christi section of Part 4—and Henry offers to debate the matter with him. The literal truth of Christ’s words feature as a big part of Henry’s credo, and the debate becomes a big event in front of archbishops and all the councillors. The outcome is inevitable. The warrant for the man’s execution is prepared in advance and, as form demands, the burning is later witnessed by all of them. Cromwell is glad Gregory doesn’t have to be there—he’s thriving with his new wife in Kent, I think it is—because he doesn’t have a strong stomach for such things.
Does Cromwell? One of the key memories he goes back to in this section is that terrible execution by fire that he witnessed after running away from home at the age of eight. Mantel somehow makes it a formative experience, after which he has gained a kind of independence. Is it because he knows he’ll never feel such terrible things ever again, never be as terrified? Whatever, it means that he will also never be blasé about inflicting that kind of pain. Would he consider himself a compassionate man? Would we? Whatever, he knows that he hasn’t reached his elevated position without making a lot of enemies. He is spoken of as a bogeyman by mothers of naughty children, and his new plan to have parish registers of births, marriages and deaths—how else can Henry know how many subjects he has?—is treated only with suspicion. Cromwell only wats to tax us and extend his own lands, they say.
And this all-powerful figure fees vulnerable. He doesn’t put it into words, but he finds himself in difficulties over adding to his ‘Book of Henry,’ a kind of user’s manual for his eyes only. Part 4 ends with him remembering that Wolsey used to talk to a ‘waxen image’ of the king. Cromwell keeps one too, ‘in the corner of his imagination, painted in bright colours and fitted with gilt shoes. He lives with it, but he doesn’t talk to it. He is afraid it will answer back.’
I’ll have missed vital things out, but never mind. It’s never easy to keep track.
Part 5—I, Ascension Day and II, Twelfth Night
It’s all happening fast now, a whole year in two chapters. Of course, ‘fast’ is a relative term, and two chapters run to nearly 100 pages between them, but Mantel is no longer having to make the point about Cromwell’s terrifyingly busy days, hours and minutes. Now she’s more interested in the big picture so, between the first chapter and the second, she can leapfrog over the king’s summer tour of the houses of the rich and the hunting-grounds around them. Been there, done that—although we hear later that Edward Seymour is pleased to have been able to host Henry at Wolf Hall again, ‘reassured that his family will lose no pre-eminence with the king’s remarriage.’ That’s how it works at this level of society… which I mention because, for whatever reason, Cromwell keeps coming back to the absolute certainty that he isn’t at that level, no matter what he does.
Nothing new there, either? In fact, it’s beginning to seem important again, after the apparent respite, to say nothing of the new honours, that he gained through his success in getting rid of Anne Boleyn. What Mantel needs, now that (as she knows and we know) Cromwell is approaching the last months of his life, is to bring to the fore those threats that have been lurking in the background. Resentment of his low birth has never gone away, even though it would never be enough to bring him down on its own. But it isn’t on its own. There are plenty of other things that his enemies can bring into play, including innuendoes about nefarious goings-on in his past and Henry’s own ignorance of how even a fixer like Cromwell can’t fix absolutely everything. [quote—he asks for it to be done and it is done.]
Nothing big has happened yet, and I’m only looking for signs in the wind because I know that only six months after the end of Twelfth Night Cromwell will be executed. But, for instance, Mantel must have her reasons for making Cromwell think back to his childhood so often. This reaches a prolonged and nightmarish climax when he suffers a recurrence of his old ‘Italian fever’, the one that floored him in Wolf Hall. For page after page, while he desperately tries to spend any lucid moments dealing with particularly urgent matters of state, he’s a boy again. He remembers every detail of how, at the age of fourteen, he chased down the ‘eel-boy’, his long-term enemy. We wonder how real it is—especially when the boy himself somehow leans into his knife. Does he really spill his guts, or is this just a feverish nightmare? And, the morning after he had been offhand with his brutal father on that same Saturday night, did he really get one of the worst beatings of his life? Is this why he left home?
We realise this isn’t only about childhood. This is also about how the most capable politician of his time, and one who is genuinely doing his best to bring about a progressive form of Protestantism, seems to have brought himself face to face with a terrible crime in his past. His career as Henry’s right-hand man has been built on his ability to treat the life of any man or woman as expendable, so this reminder of his first killing—if that’s what it is—is unwelcome. What a shock, when almost everyone in the land considers you a monster, to be confronted with your own conscience. But at least it’s a secret nobody can ever know about…
…which, he is made to realise in these chapters, can’t be said of everything in his life. Before he is still fully recovered from his fever, and when there has been a huge setback to his plans for the Church in his absence—the reactionaries have pushed through the ultra-conservative Six Articles—he has to attend the big dinner to mark the end of the parliamentary session. The debacle of the passing of the Act has confirmed for him how things can go wrong if he takes his eye off the ball for a moment, and all his worst enemies are at the dinner. Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk are there, milking it—and Gardiner, presented here as a vindictive snake, must sense Cromwell’s weakness. He brings up the subject of a cardinal’s death in Italy when Cromwell was there, suggesting there’s blood on the ‘Lord Privy Seal’s’ hands. Cromwell—we’re told explicitly—is not going to rise to the bait. But then the duke joins in, suggesting that it was done on Wolsey’s behalf and, suddenly, Cromwell has grabbed him. He apologises later, but none of those present had been comfortable with it. Maybe the memory of that beating he received from his father is still vivid. Maybe, in his head, he’s still in the streets of Putney.
It’s certainly notable that he is as proud of his life and background as any of the toffs are of theirs. In a conversation involving both him and Norfolk, the embarrassment of the confrontation at that awful dinner now forgotten (as if), Norfolk admits something we already know about him: ‘I never know what we are meant to talk to women about about….’ Cromwell is delighted to show off about how different it is for him, how his own wife had been a real partner: ‘She could keep books as well as any clerk, and when I came home from a journey she would have sent to Lombard Street and she would have the morning’s exchange rates jotted down in columns. She could always tell you how currency was moving.’ Norfolk isn’t at all impressed. ‘I think you like being low-born…. I think you’re boasting of it, Cromwell. Being a tradesman.’ You bet—but, now as always, a fat lot of good it does him. Except…
…except in the eyes of the reader. Mantel is well-known for her pride that a woman from her working-class background has become such a respected literary figure. I don’t want to overstate it, but she seems to be using Cromwell’s story about his wife to raise him in our esteem. It’s become a big thing in the book that he has great sympathy for women, and really knows how to talk to them—leaving side Wolsey’s daughter—and here he is, almost gender-blind in his presentation of his marriage. This is authorial sleight-of-hand. We remember from Bring Up the Bodies how manipulative he could be, using his understanding of women in order to manipulate them. But his anecdote works. We like this man who, unlike all those around him, understands that respect and career-prospects shouldn’t all be about an accident of birth. This is all well and good, but at one point Wriothesley has to warn him that maybe he’s overdoing it with the working-class hero thing. Cromwell understands him. ‘I will amend.’
At the day-to-day level, it’s business as usual—in other words, there’s a huge amount going on. Three conservative archbishops have been executed, and the last of the great abbeys are being closed down. Cromwell muses on how one of the most ill-run and corrupt, Launde, is where he hopes he will see out his last days, and more than one character wishes him a long life. But he’s had a lot of scares, what with the Italian fever, a limp he had for a while and, as dangerous as any of that, Gardiner continuing to sniff around for whatever dirt he can find. And, meanwhile the question of Henry’s next wife is slowly being resolved. Despite the Germans’ horror at the conservative lurch things have taken in England, the Duke of Cleves is willing for his sister to marry the king. Mantel wants us to see how complex and even fraught the negotiations are—but that Cromwell, ever the commodities man, knows that Cleves will be a useful source of alum, used in the dyeing trade, now that the usual supplies from southern Europe are being embargoed…
…because the treaty between France and the Empire under Spain is making things tricky. The French ambassador and Chapuys are recalled—he’ll be a sad loss, in his own way, despite what Cromwell seems to know of his dealings with Mary’s supporters. Cromwell has to remind Henry that by far the best policy isn’t any idea of war but creating strong sea defences, and he is able to flatter him with the idea of building up a strong navy. A big celebration is mounted on the Thames, a ‘Water Triumph’ to impress the new ambassadors. This is around the same time as the end of term dinner that goes so disastrously. Cranmer, always Cromwell’s closest ally in the church, is probably going to have to resign. Not only is he is married, a state forbidden by the Six Articles—he could separate from his non-English wife—he is against them on principle. He would be a real loss—and Stephen Gardiner’s temporary removal from the council after he speaks far too freely to Henry is not a long-term solution.
As the year turns, arrangements are made for the marriage to Anna, always (to Cromwell’s chagrin) referred to as Anne. It’s a slow process, and there are hints that it might not be a marriage made in heaven. Cromwell remembers how his enemies took advantage of his absence when he had the fever, and he isn’t prepared to spend precious time making the trip to see Anna. It has to be left to other men and the portrait made by Hans. She seems OK, says whoever is delegated to do the job, although the court at Cleves has a reputation for sobriety and early bedtimes… oh, and Anna can speak neither English nor French, so conversation is going to be tricky. Henry makes light of it—he wants it to work as much as anybody else now that his previous favourite, Christina, is no longer an option. He hopes for further heirs to come as a result—but, if we’re looking for them, the omens aren’t good. He even keeps Hans’s portrait of Christina on his wall, and somebody says quietly that he hopes it isn’t where Anna will see it.
Whatever. She is to make the trip to England and, as it is now the time of year when storms at sea are common, she will be brought overland. She will be offered safe passage through French territory as far as Calais, and Gregory will be one of the men sent to escort her from there. The ‘Twelfth Night’ of the chapter title refers to the date when, finally, Henry is to marry her at Blackheath. But, as the chapter ends, that is in the future….
What else? Plenty, on all fronts—1539 would have been a febrile enough time for any hard-working servant of the British state, even without a master like Henry. In a lucid moment during Cromwell’s bout of fever, after ‘the king’s displeasure’ has been mentioned in relation to somebody else entirely, he takes it to heart. ‘I’m sure I have displeased him. Look how he steamed and glared that day I took a holiday. Look how he pawed the ground and rolled his eyes. This is what Henry does. He uses people up.’
Part 5—III, Magnificence
The title is horribly ironic. Not only is there nothing magnificent about anything, including the marriage Cromwell finds himself getting blamed for, but its true meaning only becomes clear near the end of the section. Magnificence is the title of a satirical play written by Skelton to lampoon Wolsey’s excesses, but now Cromwell is the target. Stephen Gardiner is the man staging it, Norfolk is one of the guests watching and, as Cromwell knows, so is Wriothesley. This is bad, but 1540 has been turning into Cromwell’s annus horribilis since the start. Long before reports of the play, and of the attendance of one of Cromwell’s most trusted men, we’ve been seeing how his hold on things is becoming less secure. His enemies have clearly decided that the time is right for this upstart commoner to be brought down.
As this section opens it’s Mantel’s task, of course, to get things ready for the end we know is coming. Magnificence ends, in June 1540, with Cromwell’s arrest, but things aren’t going right even at the beginning. For the first time ever, I found myself wanting to check the historical truth of a silly decision of Henry’s. He startles everybody by saying he will disguise himself, and surprise Anne—now her official name—before she reaches the end of her journey from Dover. He fondly remembers how Katherine would be charmed by him surprising her as Robin Hood or whoever, forgetting all the obvious differences now. Anne doesn’t know him, she’s known for her sobriety and seriousness—and, as somebody says (it might be the narrator) Henry is no longer in the first flush of youth. But even Cromwell doesn’t dare to tell him straight that he should change his mind. He manages to get him to modify the disguise to one of an ordinary gentleman rather than something outlandish, but everybody knows it’s a terrible idea. Even before knowing the outcome, Cromwell wonders aloud whether he should have advised Henry ‘man to man’ not to do it.
Yes, I discover, the meeting in disguise really did take place—and it’s part of Mantel’s skill that the Henry she has presented, and whose moods and whims are the endless topic of conversation amongst his councillors, is exactly the kind of person who would imagine that anybody would be bound to recognise him, however dressed. The historical Henry was wrong, and so is the fictionalised one. What Mantel can add is that he sees a woman looking out of the window at a bull-baiting—who, according to Gregory, ‘cast a glance over her shoulder, then turned away to the sport.’ As for Henry—‘He fell back. He was stricken, as any man would be.’ Henry’s feelings about the marriage change entirely, almost leading to a diplomatic incident. It’s only a few days before Twelfth Night, and he starts to insist that Anne’s people haven’t brought the documents stipulated in the pre-marriage agreement. It’s nonsense, and Cromwell and the other councillors manage to persuade him to go along with the marriage, with some face-saving insistence that the documents are to be searched for back in Germany…
…but it’s no good. What happens in the new queen’s bedchamber at night becomes, as with all the previous queens, the subject of intense interest. All the councillors know almost immediately that nothing is happening, beyond a suggestion by somebody that Henry’s fingers have been inside her. (It’s put a lot less politely than that. This isn’t a polite world.) After a few nights it becomes an urgent matter—both to ensure that it doesn’t become common knowledge that Henry can’t do the business, and that ways can be found to put it right. But it becomes clear that Henry will never be able to have sex with a woman who feels nothing for him beyond the degree of respect he is entitled to, and who is doing her best to like him and do his bidding. In the court, everybody knows—and, much worse, Henry knows they know. It couldn’t be more humiliating.
I’m lost in admiration at the way Mantel has managed this. Throughout the whole trilogy, she has never let the reader lose sight of the precariousness of Cromwell’s position. Well before the end of Bring Up the Bodies comes that incident when, for a few minutes, Henry seems to have died in the lists. Then, and afterwards, Cromwell talks to his men about how he needs an escape plan in case it happens again—and he comments on how ironic it is to have only one powerful friend in the country, the king. For a long time in this final book, Henry has been—what?—more than a little irritated that Cromwell can’t sort out absolutely everything. With him now imagining that his manhood is being mocked, it’s suddenly become personal.
The wedding, and Henry’s failure in the bedroom, have taken up maybe a third of this long section. During the rest, marked by Lent, Easter and other signs of the turning of the year, we are there with Cromwell as he feels things tilting away out of his control. Sometimes he spends a whole night with no sleep at all, at other times he notices that decisions are being made without his knowledge. It’s even more unsettling, in a way, that the honours keep coming. The ageing Earl of Essex dies, and Cromwell gets his title—for a few chapters he’s ‘he, Essex’ instead of ‘he, Cromwell—and new duties that had previously always been offered to the Vere family. He can promote his men, splitting his Master Secretary role between them. Richard Cromwell is knighted, following a superb performance in the lists, watched by Henry, and Gregory, of course, is now an earl’s son….
It must feel like dust and ashes to Cromwell. All along—she’s good at the long game—Mantel has been dropping in enough snippets of bad news from abroad for us to feel genuinely uneasy about what is starting to happen now. Reginald Pole has never gone away and, according to rumour, the fragile state of the peace between France and the Empire only strengthen his hand. On his behalf, Charles supposedly intends to invade by way of Ireland, a country the English have always found to be unmanageable and wild. How on earth is Cromwell to cope with that? Or with the way money is pouring out of the Treasury, now his chief concern? Or with the birth of a son to the French wife of James of Scotland? Or with whatever is going on in Calais, the troublesome governor there (Lisle, the King’s uncle) now under investigation? As we all know now, Cromwell can’t do it all—and nor can he do anything about the Duke of Norfolk being the one sent to Calais to investigate. The English noblemen have always been suspicious of Cromwell’s links with Europe which, they choose to believe, go as far as putting his own interest before Henry’s. It’s no surprise at all that when he returns, Norfolk is venomous about the way things have been going on behind the king’s back.
It’s wonderful and terrible. I remember the end of The Long Good Friday—the Irish are troublesome in that film, too—as the character played by Bob Hoskins is abducted by his enemies. He had done everything right, he thought, but he suddenly realises events had actually lurched out of his control. He sits in the back of the car, the man in the front passenger seat pointing a gun at him, and the camera is close in on his face for a full minute. Confusion gives way to realisation and half a dozen other emotions—he even chuckles silently at the stupidity of it all, blaming himself, knowing he’s a dead man. He’s just a crook, and we’ve seen how eye-wateringly violent he can be, but it’s still possible to feel what he’s going through. All hope gone…
… just as with Cromwell, no longer Essex, that other London boy whose rise had seemed unstoppable. Well, it looks like he’s been stopped now. He is opening a meeting of the council, as normal—‘shall we begin?’—when Fitzwilliam says, ‘We do not sit down with traitors.’ He’s ‘ready for them—on his feet, his jaw set, his eyes narrowed…’ and, for a long paragraph, there’s a one-sided scuffle. His chain is gone, his badges of rank are gone. It’s a shock, but he knows: ‘it is over.’ A familiar figure is there to escort him—where else? It’s Kingston, the constable of the Tower, and he knows. ‘There is only one place Kingston leads you.’ A page later, at the end of this section, as its flint walls come into view, it ‘sparkles like sunlight on the sea.’
Part 6—I, Mirror and II, Light
It’s over. Part 6 is short, compared to the others, and it’s brilliant. I don’t know whether those two things are connected—I’ve never been convinced, right from my first reading of Wolf Hall, that so many words are truly necessary. But Mantel knew what she wanted, and her assiduously constructed version of ten years in one man’s life is a kind of epic. It isn’t in spite of the interiority of the narrative that the sense of a heroic scale is achieved, but because of it. She gives the suave impression that Cromwell holds the world inside his own mind, and she does it through an attention to detail on her part, at every level, that seems to match his own. He doesn’t travel far in this final volume, but his dreams and memories range from Putney to Italy and back by way of the Low Countries, and if there’s anything happening anywhere in Britain or Europe, he somehow seems to know about it.
Except, as he’s started to realise, he doesn’t… and that’s the root cause of his downfall. He could tell in Part 5, especially in Magnificence, that this was happening—but, unlike us, he didn’t know that he was living through the last months of his life. Then, and even after his arrest, he knew not only that he was indispensable, but that Henry knew it too. More than once in Part 6 he says it, either—in a moment of exasperation with the fatuousness of the charges against him—to his accusers, or to himself. Henry, he is absolutely sure, will be lost without him. (It looks as though I was wrong to think his arrest was a Long Good Friday moment. Unlike the 1980s gang boss, when he’s taken away he thinks there might be a way out.)
He is lodged comfortably in the Tower, in the rooms that had been Anne Boleyn’s both before her coronation and during her trial… and it seems that Gardiner, or whoever had said it, had been hasty about the loss of his title. So now he’s ‘he, Thomas Essex’—not that it’s going to make any difference. Christophe comes to tell him that his house has been searched, as in ransacked, his ‘strongbox’ removed and some of his best things taken away. He, Cromwell, by no means takes this as confirmation of a de facto death sentence. He has made some basic preparations, having removed some things and left instructions to have others destroyed. Later, Rafe confirms that ‘the Book of Henry’ has been burnt along with other papers, and the ashes reduced to nothing. But these preparations have been in hand for a long time, because he thought a move against him was not unlikely. It doesn’t mean he’s given up.
We see this in the first of the hearings he has to go through, which turns into one of the best set-piece scenes in the book. The usual suspects have made their entrances into Cromwell’s lodging—and Wriothesley is there too, as is Richard Riche. Cromwell is not at all fazed by their presence, but he reminds them from time to time how they have learnt everything from him. He doesn’t make a big thing of it—he has plenty of more important things to think about—but a fighter like him can’t resist. I don’t know whether the historical Cromwell was really the mentor to almost a generation of politicians, and it doesn’t matter. In Mantel’s presentation of him, he is the inventor of the administrative class’s entire methodology. Maybe he was.
Those more important things. The charges are whatever can be portrayed to parliament as proofs of treachery, and they range from the petty to the potentially deadly. Some of the latter are documents Cromwell knows to be forged—that’s what he says, anyway—but what can he do? Stephen Gardiner, inevitably, is the man in charge, and he sometimes has a problem keeping Norfolk in order. He, Norfolk, begins by bringing out a doublet of a forbidden purple colour, which Cromwell is known to have worn, as proof that he always wanted to overturn the status quo. Cromwell almost seems to be enjoying himself as he mocks whatever Norfolk says, but he can see that however he refutes or disproves the charges, he can’t beat them with arguments. He has thrived by his ability to make the law do whatever he wants, and he knows how it works. ‘There will be no trial. They will pass a bill to put an end to me. I cannot complain of the process. I have used it myself.’ And he understands this before the first hearing is over.
What makes it memorable is the detail that Mantel goes into, and at what length. We’re used to what I called packages of information, chapters that often appear fragmentary as though to indicate just what Cromwell’s day-to-day life has always been like. Information from the north, or Calais, or Hampton Court vies with his thoughts about the fruit on the table and the refurbishment of some house or other…. But the long chapter that contains this scene isn’t like that. The dialogue is enough to make a complete scene in a play. The back-and-forth of the arguments show Cromwell at the height of his powers, running rings around these men who have never been as quick on their feet as he is. It’s as though Mantel wants to allow Cromwell his swansong, and this scene is it. But he knows—and we know too, because this is no play and we’re privy to his thoughts, as ever—that nothing he says will swing things in his favour. He does it because, well, you have to, don’t you?
There are other hearings, which Mantel chooses not to present in any detail. Instead, she has Cromwell write his final deposition, although Gardiner has already told him he is certainly ‘a dying man.’ He sits down to gather his thoughts, having dismissed even his most trusted men from his presence, but ‘before he can write, he sheds a tear and thinks, I am in mourning for myself.’ And this leads to what, for me, is the real drama of these final chapters. We’ve had the drama of that first hearing and his pitch-perfect responses the charges against him. But, now that’s all over—and we, as readers, know the outcome anyway—the real drama exists deep inside Cromwell. We’ve been living inside his consciousness from the beginning, of course, but now we’re inside his conscience too, a far less familiar place. We’ve encountered it before, but not so often.
We know his religious beliefs to be genuine, that he has seen enough corruption in the Catholic church to know that reformation has to happen. We also know his opposition to the Six Articles to have been completely sincere, in the teeth of whatever the conservatives could do to slow it down. He’s feeling the sharpness of those teeth now. We can be absolutely sure he is no religious hypocrite, paying lip-service to whichever current interpretation will best serve him. And yet, and yet…
…he has done some terrible things in his time. Mantel has never spelled out the precise nature of those killings he allegedly carried out in his earlier life—although being privy to his fevered dreams about what he did to the eel-boy has let us know both that he really did carry out that particular murder and, more crucially, that it makes him endure a very long night of the soul in later life. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Mantel chose to link that eruption of conscience to the fever that prevented him from derailing the passage of the Six Articles. These, through a terrible irony, have now helped to bring him to execution.
He might not be guilty as charged but, as he has often said in his role as prosecutor, he’s certainly guilty of something. And he knows what. To carry on from that line about being in mourning for himself: ‘I could not do it again: the years of sleepless toil, the brute moral deformation, the axe-work.’ Ah. We have never, ever come across this kind of self-examination before. In one sentence comes all the proof we need that he is as aware as we are of the appalling moral compromises he has made. The ‘brute moral deformation, the axe-work,’ half-a-dozen words that sum up the terrible cost. He’s shedding a tear because he’s thinking about his eternal soul… so a quick mind like his going to look for how it happened. The next sentence explains it: ‘When Henry dies and goes to judgment, he must answer for me, for all his servants: he must account for what he did to Cromwell.’
Is this mere finger-pointing, Cromwell in his moment of crisis looking to assign blame? Well, yes and no. He didn’t have to do it, we could say, he didn’t have to bring all those people to their deaths—the axe-work, as he calls it—but he did, and now he has to face up to it. But it has been Mantel’s project to take us, step by tiny step, through the process of his ‘brute moral deformation.’ For me, in this book, the worst example of this is his clear admission that Anne Boleyn’s lute-player, Mark Smeaton, was little more than a child when he decided his death would be convenient. After that, he sometimes prevents executions and always seems to avoid causing too much pain both for those accused and their families. But we know, and he knows, it’s not enough. A merciful man would not be doing this job.
But, as I said, he’s having to face what he’d done—and it only gets worse. Some time later, Wolsey appears to him again, having been absent since his daughter’s terrible accusation of betrayal. It’s a scene from Shakespeare, or Dickens, as the cardinal declines the chair once used by Thomas More. ‘For what that ingrate did to me, I will never pass the time of day with him.’ Cromwell asks him straight out: ‘Sir, you know I did not betray you? Despite what your daughter thinks?’ But what does he expect from the spirit world, the definitive truth? After ‘dragging his scarlet,’ at last Wolsey speaks. For what it’s worth. ‘Well, Thomas … I dare say … women get things wrong.’
It doesn’t help him, and a ‘great fatigue’ returns. And we witness the depth of his terrible remorse. ‘The feeling around his heart, that it is crushed, forced out of shape—he now understands as a deformity caused by grief. He feels he is dragging corpses, shovelling them up: Robert Aske, Tom Truth, Harry Norris and Will Brereton, little Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton with his lute. And even those in whose death no one can say he took a hand…’ and more names follow. He re-lives moments from the hearings he’s had to endure, Wriothesley’s betrayals and slanders—even down to the story of the French tailors, the ones Cromwell sent away more or less satisfied. In Call-me’s version, Cromwell is profiteering, regardless of Henry’s wishes. He remembers how, that same day, Wriothesley had told him to be careful. ‘He didn’t think he meant, be careful of me.’
Mantel wants us to regard him as a tragic figure and, for me, he is. I sympathise with him, in spite of the things he’s capable of doing, partly because he thinks of outcomes far beyond the political rough and tumble. It’s no mere authorial conceit, for instance, to have him think of the devastating effects on wives and children, but one that Mantel has built up over volumes. And, through inhabiting Cromwell so thoroughly, to use Mantel’s own claim in interviews, she has allowed us to do the same, to see a far broader picture of the pressures on him than is usual in any fiction. There’s a lot about him that is admirable, and even likeable. It all helps her case.
But, whatever is said, once he had written down all he knows, it’s over: ‘with these papers, my usefulness is gone.’ He only has one card left to play—a final plea to the king. He knows the size of the task he faces: ‘He supposes that Henry, for an hour or two together, believes firmly in both his heresy and his treason. But surely he cannot sustain the delusion? For the rest of his hours, he does not care what is true. He cultivates his grudge and grievance. No councillor can ever placate him….’ Henry’s Trump-like unreason seems impenetrable when presented like this, but Cromwell plays this last card anyway. In fact, he plays it twice, laying on very thickly indeed the necessary praise of Henry, his mercy, and his good judgment. And, in Mantel’s presentation of it, he comes within a whisker of getting Henry to pardon him. He had told Ralf to deliver the second letter personally, and stay with him as he read it. Henry wavers… but no. Well, it was worth a shot. Two shots.
Anything else, before the final moments? One, about the way his enemies’ point-scoring never ends. Norfolk, who has become an almost Dickensian monster by now, is sure to let him know that his niece is to be married on the same day that he, Cromwell is to be executed. (The tidy annulment of the marriage to Anne of Cleves is one of the things he has to deal with as he had been contemplating his own fate.) He makes sure Gregory, Richard (now Sir Richard) and Rafe, are all to retain their positions, and he is diligent in making sure all his servants are to be found new employment….
It all adds to his humanity, as does his vision of Hell during the night before his execution. It will be like when he could hear his father, ‘not pain itself, but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn’t help and didn’t even know was wrong.’ Cromwell did know, of course, but he knows his death as a traitor is not just. We’ll allow him that. And as for heaven…. After some false starts—parties organised by Wolsey, the Field of the Cloth of Gold—he’s got it. ‘Perhaps, he thinks, this time tomorrow I will inhabit some kinder city…’
…but first comes the morning, and the execution itself. As we knew when we reached a chapter called Light, we get the bleach fields again—a lot of mileage Mantel’s got out of a fictional daughter’s mistranslation—but that’s only in his imagination before he reaches the scaffold. As is that kinder city of the night before, a version of an Italian idyll, ‘the blue shadows lengthening, the sun’s final rays softening the lines of bell towers and domes.’ And if we were wondering whether this author would end this final novel at the fall of the axe, we can’t have been concentrating. Of course she doesn’t. How could Mantel do anything else but give us two long paragraphs, from ‘The pain is acute’ to him ‘tracking the light along the wall.’ We’ve been in his head for something like 1,900 pages—she’s created this consciousness, and she can give us whatever version she likes of its final moments. Walter is there—‘By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet’—and so is every sense, as he continues to take it all in. He is making angel shapes in the snow, he is feeling the pulse of scarlet, he is out at sea. He’s on the ‘slippery stones’ again—is that how Wolf Hall opens?—and then… he isn’t.
Those two paragraphs are a fitting end to the impossible, glorious folly of this trilogy. Thank God there are authors committed enough to spend years working on a project like this… but, to be honest, I’m also saying thank God it’s over.