From a 21st century perspective, the Tudor world of Thomas Cromwell was corrupt and venal, while from his, Cromwell’s, point of view, as we read it in Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the Bodies, it was simply how things got done in the middle of the 16th century. Volume two of her planned trilogy covers the events of nine or ten months from September 1535 when the king is beginning to feel that, with time marching on and no son and heir produced, it might be time to move on to a third wife. Henry has had his eye on young and modest Jane Seymour since, as readers of Wolf Hall (see my previous blog) will remember, the court stopped there as part of its summer progress. But if the Seymours are brought in, the Boleyns and the Howards will be pushed out and, unsurprisingly, they don’t want to go. It will be Cromwell’s next project on behalf of Henry to create the circumstances in which the transfer can be made with an appearance of legality and also seem justifiable theologically to the Supreme Head of the Church in England who happens now to be the King himself, a monarch fearful for his immortal soul. Once more the events are unfolded as a combination of the interior monologue and the verbal encounters that Cromwell has with friends, foes and family.
These are the sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535: the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs’ paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The sussuration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversations. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls the noises of the city: the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river. His inner monologue, running on, soft-voiced: it is in public rooms that he thinks of the cardinal, his footsteps echoing in lofty vaulted chambers. It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. She is a blur now in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap. He had half turned, saying to her, ‘Go back to bed’: but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at her head and feet.
As with the previous volume, Mantel writes only from within the mind of her protagonist who relishes the jobs he undertakes in the service of the King but now he is being asked to frame a case against Queen Anne, such that she might feel obliged, at the very least, to retire to a convent because, despite all that was sworn and deposed about her when Henry wanted to marry her, now the tide has turned and the King wants to discover that, with no male heir, it had all been a terrible mistake and that not only should he never have married Katherine but; surprise, surprise; neither ought he to have married Anne.
However, while in Wolf Hall the interior monologue has touches of Henry James and Katherine Mansfield, in Bring up the Bodies the text reads more like a 16th century John le Carré in which Thomas Cromwell is a precursor of George Smiley. He is all ears to allegations, rumours and confessions; and he has a long memory. He recalls those, still in the court, who had a hand in the downfall of his first patron, Cardinal Wolsey, and who, despite his powerful position, still mock him for his humble origins. As befits one who understands the recent invention of double-entry bookkeeping by the Italian monk, Pacioli, Cromwell now has the chance to balance the ledger with the downfall not only of the Queen but of those who brought down the cardinal.
As before, we enjoy Cromwell’s mordant wit and acerbic sense of humour; as when he invites the Queen’s lutinist, Mark Smeaton, to supper and a little pre-prandial close questioning. Cromwell does not need to use torture: he is so powerful, even the hint of the threat of it is credible and Mark has already made damaging admissions. When his assistant, Thomas Wriothesley, [pronounced Risley] suggests taking Smeaton to the Tower where there is a rack, Cromwell reproves him.
‘Wriothesley, may I have a word with you aside?’ He waves Call-me out of the room and on the threshold speaks in an undertone. ‘It is better not to specify the nature of the pain. As Juvenal says, the mind is its own best torturer. Besides, you should not make empty threats. I will not rack him. I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I needed to rack a sad little fellow like this … what next? Stamping on dormice?’
The Queen is found guilty; it scarcely matters for what; and so are the men who may or may not have slept with her and all must die. But the king is a compassionate man and, just for the queen, sends for a French executioner who can behead with one sideways sweep of his broadsword rather than one or more downward chops of an axe. Politically, Cromwell takes his son to see the queen die so that his family can be seen to have been there. But now the Seymours are in and the surviving Boleyns and Howards are out and will be on the lookout for one slip by the architect of their misfortune. Meantime, the king makes him Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. But if that seems like the end, you are mistaken: it is only the beginning of the next but final stage of the life of Thomas Cromwell which Hilary Mantel will recount in the concluding volume, The Mirror & the Light. Bookmakers will not give you very long odds on this third novel winning a third Man Booker prize for Hilary Mantel.