After a prolonged break, Hilary Mantel finally returned to the Wolf Hall trilogy this year with The Mirror and the Light, the final installment in the fictionalized account of the rise and fall of the real Thomas Cromwell, a talented man who rose from humble beginnings to become Master Secretary and consigliere to King Henry VIII. I read the first two books when they came out (in 2009 and 2012) and thought they were fantastic. Both won numerous prestigious prizes including the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award, and the books were turned into an excellent Masterpiece Theater series starring Mark Rylance, Damien Lewis and Clare Foy. Given the number of years since the last volume, I decided that before diving in to The Mirror and the Light I would re-read the first two. They hold up as fascinating and well written historical fiction, but I do find myself having more conflicted feelings about Cromwell and his actions as imagined by Mantel.
Wolf Hall is the longer of the two books and can make for dense reading at times. This is understandable since Mantel is introducing Cromwell to the reader. While the life and times of Henry VIII may be fairly well known to most people, the name Cromwell would not be despite the fact that he was instrumental in helping Henry deal with his church and marriage problems. It is known that Cromwell was a blacksmith’s son who left home to become a mercenary soldier in Europe, then worked in banking and textile related industries in Europe before returning to England and becoming a lawyer; he then worked for and became a top advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, one of the most powerful men in England and Henry’s Chancellor. Mantel takes this bare bones story and creates a fascinating backstory for Thomas Cromwell. She opens with a 15-year-old Cromwell bloodied and battered at the hands of his abusive father Walter. While his sisters worry about and care for him, Thomas decides he will leave England and try to make a way for himself on the continent. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s brawling and there’s always a need for soldiers. From here, Mantel flashes forward to London 1527, where an adult Cromwell is married with children and a successful lawyer. He is top advisor to Wolsey, a sort of surrogate father figure, but Wolsey’s star is in decline. The king is unhappy in his marriage to Katherine of Spain, which has not produced a male heir, and is looking to the Cardinal to get him out of the marriage despite the fact that he had to do some fancy footwork at the Vatican to get approval for Henry’s marriage to Katherine in the first place. Henry’s inner circle, which is made up of noble families with wealth and power, resent Wolsey due to his influence with Henry and his own humble origins. Cromwell doesn’t even deserve a second look. Yet, in Mantel’s hands, Cromwell is a man who should not be underestimated and whom one would not want as an enemy. This is a man who has faced pain, adversity, war, death, and defeat, and yet has not been bowed. Cromwell has many talents and gifts, including a head for figures and for languages. He has built up a household (a sort of family firm) of young men who desire his patronage, understanding that they will be able to make wealth and names for themselves under his tutelage. When the king puts Wolsey in his place, allowing this faithful servant to be humiliated by noble families, Cromwell sees all and remembers, but he is above all a pragmatist. His goal is to use his considerable skills to serve the king, and in doing so to also help himself and his household. The Cromwell that Mantel imagines knows how to play the long game; he is always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else, all the better to serve Henry and, eventually, to pay back those who brought down Wolsey.
One of the key players in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor after Wolsey and Cromwell’s nemesis. The scenes between More and Cromwell are always interesting, with two very talented men on opposite sides of the matter of Henry’s marriage and the church. Cromwell is sympathetic to European reformers who advocate married priests and translating the Bible into native languages, although he keeps his opinions mostly to himself. While no great admirer of Anne Boleyn, he understands that his job is to get the king what he wants, ie, an end to his first marriage. He recognizes Anne’s intelligence and cunning, but also remembers her role in the downfall of Wolsey and sees her antipathy for More. As his star rises in the eyes of Henry VIII, Cromwell finds himself navigating warring factions amongst the King’s retainers, that is, those old families who are loyal to Katherine and the Catholic Church, and those who support the rise of Anne Boleyn and divesting the church of its wealth, lands and influence in England. Cromwell, in serving Henry, becomes known for his intelligence and ruthlessness, and as a result he is esteemed, feared, and loathed. He gets a reputation for being something of a “fixer” and he is able to make sure his spies are everywhere.
Wolf Hall ends with the death of Thomas More and the ascendency of Anne Boleyn, now married to Henry and the mother of Elizabeth. As Bring Up the Bodies opens, the situation is tense and uneasy. Supporters of Katherine, who is still alive, and of Mary, who is daughter of Katherine and Henry, are still resentful of Anne and her daughter with Henry and plot for their demise. Anne resents Katherine and Mary and would see them dead. Henry, meanwhile, is frustrated by his church problems and by his lack of a legitimate male heir. He has turned his roving eye toward another woman, Jane Seymour. Bring Up the Bodies is a much more lively novel, largely because this is the story of the fall of Anne Boleyn and of Cromwell’s revenge on those who helped bring down Wolsey. In order to serve Henry, Cromwell now must work with the families who opposed Anne Boleyn and who pretty much always hated Cromwell. Various characters on several occasions in this novel point out the obvious to Cromwell — that these people will be only too glad to stick a knife in his back later. Cromwell understands this perhaps better than anyone, but he won’t let this get in the way of serving Henry. Cromwell comes off as a real mafia don, the consigliere who will make his boss’s wishes come true. Cromwell knows how to make an offer one cannot refuse, and usually he doesn’t need physical force to get what he wants. He has spent years collecting information, lending money, getting himself and his boys into influential positions at court; he has watched and listened and bided his time. When he starts to go after Anne Boleyn’s “lovers,” if indeed any of them were, it is chilling and masterful. But there is that sense of foreboding, that what Cromwell has wrought upon others will one day come back to haunt him.
Re-reading these two novels in our present political situation has, I think, changed my feelings a little about Cromwell. When I read these books 8+ years ago, I remember being impressed by the rags to riches story of Cromwell, by the poor boy whose brilliance served a king, by Cromwell’s taste, humility and generosity as Mantel imagines him. These novels are told from Cromwell’s point of view, and Mantel’s Cromwell has a special fondness for the poor rough boys of the streets, as well as for the young women at court who are used for political purposes by fathers, brothers, and husbands. This is a man who has used his talents to enrich not just himself but countless others. This Cromwell has a sense of humor, ready wit, and formidable anger when the situation calls for it. He seems admirable. And yet … this is a person who to me seems amoral. Cromwell doesn’t understand people like Thomas More, who won’t just go along with what Henry wants and save their own lives. For Cromwell, it seems there is no higher purpose than serving earthly power, which means you do whatever is necessary for the king, even if that means rewriting laws, contradicting yourself, and letting innocent people die. It just reminds me too much of the current GOP in their subservience to the President’s whims. The first time I read Wolf Hall, I remember thinking that Thomas More came off as sort of a jerk, which I found surprising since, as a Catholic, I knew about him and loved “A Man for All Seasons” (I did read a few articles that indicated Mantel’s treatment of More was not always historically accurate). This time, all I could think was that More had the courage of his convictions. You might not agree with his convictions, but he was consistent, and he was set up, and he knew what was going to happen to him but he didn’t pretend to believe things he didn’t.
I am looking forward to the final volume in the Wolf Hall trilogy. Mantel has great imagination and is an excellent writer. Even though I know what happens to Cromwell, I am curious to see how she interprets his end.