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 also 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. He 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 a 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.