How shocking to hear that Dame Hilary Mary Mantel died at 70 years old of a stroke at the end of September 2022. I did not even catch on to Hilary Mantel until she wrote Wolf Hall, and even then, the title didn’t attract me at first. But once I started Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his importance to the volatile Henry VIII, I was glad I waited because I got to read all three books with barely a pause.
These are hefty books, about 500 pages each, and they are historical fiction. Some historians are purists and will not read historical fiction, but in truth all history tends to be slanted by the point of view of the recorder of the events that make up the history that is being observed and set down. It is almost impossible to be totally objective about human history. If you are a reader, it is a joy to begin a really large tome or series of any genre, one that deposits you into a world different to your own, one that makes you sigh with melancholy and satisfaction when the books are done. Hilary Mantel gave us just such a trilogy before her body, which had often caused her pain, set her free to go wherever great authors go when they die.
If you want to read an obituary that tells you about Dame Mantel’s life in greater detail this article from The Guardian. The Guardian is not behind a paywall, but they may hit you up for a donation. Follow your budget on this one.
I include the review I wrote of each book in the trilogy. I think one day soon I will read them all again.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an abused child of an English blacksmith who ran away to be a soldier to save his own life, a choice that strikes me as an unusual way to save your life, but there were not a lot of choices then. He did much more in his travels than just soldiering and, by the time he returned to England, his experiences had turned him into a formidable young man. He became the advisor and confidant of the King and held so many royal offices and honors that envy earned him aristocratic enemies who did not dare to act as enemies
In Wolf Hall, named after an estate that actually figures very little in the first book, we find Henry VIII who wants to set aside his first wife, Katherine, the Queen, so he can marry Anne Boleyn, a woman with many seductive skills. Henry needs a son as heir and since Katharine has not given him one, he hopes the younger, prettier Anne, will.
England is Catholic and there are all kinds of problems with the Pope and the Cardinals who believe the first marriage is legal and cannot be set aside. Cromwell has an ingenious solution to make this marriage happen, a solution that turns England upside down. Maybe you already know what it is, but you didn’t hear it from me.
The history of England has always interested me. My mother’s ancestors trace back to Shoreditch, which was an actual place near London even in the days of the Tudors, so perhaps I am genetically inclined to be an Anglophile, or perhaps I am just a fan of royalty. But I don’t think the attraction comes from either of these passions. I think it has more to do with the longevity of British history. The nation is old, and the human kindnesses and cruelties get so exaggerated when a succession of kings and queens becomes the focus of both hope and despair for an entire nation, one generation at a time. It’s fascinating. All the best and worst traits of humans, especially humans with power, are revealed., but at a safe historical remove.
If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts a bit slowly at first, it may be the pronouns that are at fault. It sometimes seems difficult to figure out the antecedent to “he” or “her” or “they.” There are so many characters involved. Just don’t get hung up on figuring our exactly who is talking. The writing pace is quick, and the pronoun trick helps speed things along. Stay with it. It does not take long at all to get your Brit geek in gear. On to Book 2. (It’s a trilogy!)
Bring Up The Bodies
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s books are full of detail and paint a picture of life in 1500’s England. Her prose is exceptional, and her descriptions are so well done that the book plays like a movie in your head.
Apparently, Cromwell has not been the subject of in-depth research. Mantel brings him to life using the known to extrapolate about the unknown. She fleshes the man out. She uses fact and imagination to make him a living contemporary of Henry VIII. In this second book, we begin to understand why Cromwell was a formidable figure. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, had been loyal to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Great men trained up younger men with promise, and Wolsey saw much promise in Cromwell. When Henry VIII wanted to set aside his first wife Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church stood in the way. Cardinal Wolsey, wealthy, learned, and powerful, represented the Catholic Church in England.
Wolsey could not approve the King’s divorce. His property was seized, and he lost all his comforts, was forced to live in rougher circumstances than his advanced age could tolerate, and he died of illness before he could be executed. Cromwell happened upon a play that mocked the fall of Wolsey. This masque was described in Wolf Hall, Book 1. Cromwell looked behind a screen as the players shed their disguises. He makes a mental note of who is the left front paw, the right front paw, the left rear paw, and the right rear paw of the beast in the play.
In Bringing Up the Bodies, Cromwell gets his revenge. He also reveals himself as so much more than the intelligent businessman and mentor of his own domain and the friend and ally of Henry, the King. We see his dark side. Previously we understood people’s envy and incredulity that this commoner could rise so high; now we understand how Cromwell becomes an object of fear. He becomes a man to deal with cautiously. Henry is now convinced that he needs to be free of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell makes it so in horrifying fashion. I was liking Cromwell. However, he is slipping in my regard, even though I still admire his many talents.
Cromwell and the King have already found a way to make the King the head of the church of England. Now they are beginning to dismantle the holdings of the Catholic Church and transfer the wealth to the King. Cromwell is ‘way out over his skis.’ Will he fall or remain upright? People near the King are falling like flies. Cromwell might be making too many enemies. I could look up the outcome online, but I want to wait and let Mantel take me there. I’m looking forward to Book 3.
The Mirror and the Light
The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually, he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.
This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.
Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies, the men who mocked him in the play in the second book. Cromwell holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.
Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with an injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out.
At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.
These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:
“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.”
And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.
I am sorry that we didn’t get to have Dame Hilary Mary Mantel around to write a few more immersive tomes. I hope that if you haven’t read the Thomas Cromwell books that you will. You could spend an entire winter in the reign of Henry VIII, who is not so different from leaders we encounter today.