The Mirror and the Light ends Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose to the heights of power serving Henry VIII only to die by the axe as a traitor. This third volume is a slog — 759 pages devoted to the last years of Cromwell’s life, from the summer 1536 to the summer of 1540. While volume two tripped along a good clip in its depiction of the fall of Anne Boleyn (always interesting to read about), this imagining of Cromwell’s end is a slow moving affair. This is due, at least in part, to the nature of the issues related to his demise, but I also think we get bogged down in what Mantel imagines Cromwell’s thoughts and reminiscences are during this time. Mantel is a phenomenal writer, but I found myself getting bored and irritated, and I think some of this is due to the times in which we live and the characters about whom she writes.
The novel takes the reader from shortly after the beheading of Henry’s second wife to his marriage to his fifth wife, which coincided with Cromwell’s beheading. During these years, Henry married Jane Seymour, who was a bit of a cypher but offended no one and produced a male heir (Edward) before dying from complications related to childbirth. As Henry’s fixer, Cromwell had orchestrated the fall of Anne Boleyn, Jane’s ascension to the throne, and the promotion of the Seymour family. While the Seymours and Henry valued Cromwell, most of the rest of the court loathed him; he was a commoner who had power, wealth and the king’s confidence, and he frequently threatened and brought down his “betters.” While Jane did provide the much desired male heir for the Tudor dynasty, Henry’s position was not necessarily stable. Some families considered the Tudors usurpers to the English throne and some resented Henry’s break with the Pope and Roman Catholicism. As a result, noble families were constantly maneuvering for influence at court and with foreign rulers (such as the king of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope).
Henry’s need for a new wife, domestic and international political unrest, and the Reformation are all at play in this novel, and Cromwell does his best to navigate these troubled waters. At the time of Jane’s death in autumn of 1536, the king was also dealing with a rebel uprising in the north, as well as the ever-present threat of invasion from the continent. Henry’s marriages and divorces made him an enemy of the Catholic Church, meaning that “good Christian rulers” could lawfully invade England to take him down. France, the Holy Roman Empire and Scotland were conspiring to make trouble for Henry, which meant he needed funds and the support of his nobles to be ready to fight back. Cromwell’s business acumen and his ruthless dismantling of Catholic monasteries and nunneries increased the wealth of England while also winning him a reputation as a greedy and heartless man. Cromwell won accolades, titles and properties for his service to the king, but noble families resented it and, given their status and the need for their services, found ways to press their advantages with Henry.
In addition to his disadvantages regarding class, Cromwell was thought to be a secret supporter of Luther and the “gospellers,” i.e., those who would translate the Bible into native tongues, making it accessible to all Christians, and who would allow priests to marry. Henry, despite his significant disagreement with the Catholic Church, did not support these ideas and his regime suppressed those who did. Cromwell did secretly support these reform movements and tried to promote English bishops who were like minded (such as Thomas Cranmer), but among the English clergy he gained some powerful enemies. Most notable among these was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who like Cromwell had served Cardinal Wolsey back in the day. Gardiner and Cromwell have been nemeses for the entire series, each spying on the other and sometimes employing the same people as spies.
Henry’s need for a new wife and more heirs to solidify the Tudor dynasty were complicated by his political and religious issues. Ideally, Henry would make a marriage that would bring him powerful political allies on the continent, but given his heretical position vis a vis the Catholic Church, few offers were available. Meanwhile, Henry’s noblemen, especially the Duke of Norfolk, were angling to get Henry to notice their own daughters/nieces for a match, which would of course mean greater political status and influence for the lucky family. Cromwell worked to prevent such a thing from happening and promoted the marriage to Anna of Cleves, sister to a German prince. The German princes were known to be sympathetic to progressive religious ideas and could be important political allies in Europe.
As we know from history, this marriage to Anna only lasted a few short months, during which Cromwell fell ill for a week or so. During that illness, his enemies were able to cause enough mischief at court and in Parliament to ensure that Cromwell would not be able to deliver to the king the things he wanted the most. Cromwell reflects on his mistakes and on his fickle master throughout the novel but especially during his time in the Tower. Ever the pragmatic politician, he hopes for the best but prepares for the worst, making sure that incriminating documents are destroyed and that his own family is protected.
We know from history that Henry regretted the execution of Cromwell later. He, more than any other member of the court, had the intelligence and ruthlessness to anticipate Henry’s needs and work tirelessly to meet them. Cromwell served the king first, himself and his religious beliefs second. Ultimately, Cromwell was consumed by the machine he created to eliminate Henry’s enemies, an irony not lost on Cromwell.
The character Cromwell as Mantel imagines him is a complex man who sometimes demonstrates admirable qualities but ultimately is a product of his time. He rose from nothing to become one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. He was a “Renaissance man,” who knew multiple languages, understood business, politics, and men. He could be kind and compassionate toward the less fortunate — the street boys who grew up tough as he had; women who could be as smart and observant as any man but whose opportunities were limited. He was loyal to his masters (Wolsey and Henry) and to his family, which included people to whom he was not biologically related. When Cromwell was ruthless and brutal, it was only as a last resort. He understood that one’s fortunes could turn overnight, and that today’s enemy might be an ally tomorrow, or vice versa.
And yet, as I wrote in my previous review, it is difficult not to be disgusted by Cromwell and all of those who exercised authority in 16th century England. Some might think his dismantling of the Catholic Church in England admirable; certainly the institutional church was rife with corruption, and there were men and women who preyed upon the ignorance and superstition of common people. Yet Cromwell managed to enrich himself and his family as a result and he never had the courage to boldly state his own religious beliefs. He was a practitioner of what we call realpolitik. His goal was not to change the system but to allow himself and others of non-noble stock to benefit from it. Thus he catered to a bloated, orange-haired autocrat who cheated on his wives, denied his own immorality and got those who served him to back up his claims. Sound familiar? Those who served Henry may have thought he was an illegitimate ruler, they may have been sympathetic to Rome and the Pope, they resented their treatment at his hands, but they understood that this system worked to their benefit and so they could suck up and bide their time. Again, sound familiar? As disturbing as dystopian fiction can be, this trilogy based on history is often more jarring.
On the whole, I would recommend these novels to those who enjoy historical fiction, the Tudors, and politics. Mantel brings Cromwell to his end in a mostly satisfying way, and she certainly gives readers a lot to think about regarding both history and our current political situation.