Thomas Cromwell’s Final Act: “The Mirror And The Light,” Review Of Hilary Mantel’s Newest Book, Reviewed By Katherine Powers; The Finale Of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy Brings The Brillaint Statesman To His Bloody End
With all the bad news going around now, it was refreshing to learn that the thrid book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on one of the most consequential figures in European history, who served as Chief Minister to King Henry VIII, from 1532-1540, when he was decapitated on orders of the king. Cromwell “was one of the most powerful advocates of the English Reformation,” Wikipedia noted. He helped engineer an annulment of the king’s marriage to Queen Katherine, so that Henry could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn. As is well known the Pope did not grant Henry VIII the annulment he sought — in part because Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England refused to sign a letter endorsing/asking Pope Clement to approve the request. Sir Thomas More was immortalized by actor Paul Scofield, in the 1966 film classic, “A Man For All Seasons.” But, I digress.
Katherine Powers, a recipient of the National Book Critic’s Circle’s Nona Balakain Citation for Excellence In Reviewing — reviewed Ms. Mantel’s final book of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell in the March 10, 2020 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Powers begins by noting that “it took 11 years, three volumes, and more than 1,700 pages gto dispatch, at last, the man William Cobbett calls, “the bloody ruffian,” THOMAS CROMWELL. “Starting with “Wolf Hall” (2009), whose title sounded the death knell for Anne Boleyn, a sense of inevitability and doom has pervaded the novels,” she notes. “Without turning a page, we have known the “plot”: who will rise, who will fall, who will die — and when. Gettting there, however, has been a meander through the consciousness of one of Britain’s greatest statesmen, and legislators, a key player in the establishment of the Church of England and the creation of the modern state. Along the way we have been granted chilling glimpses into the mecurial mind of Cromwell’s master, Henry VIII, upon whose fluctuating desire, uneasy conscience, and increasingly corpulent ailing body, the fate of the realm rests.”
“A villian to Cobbett, a hero to hagiographer John Foxe, a legislative genius to historian to G.R. Elton, Cromwell , a person with feelings and private thoughts, has been a cipher from the start,” Ms. Powers wrote. “His portrait by Hans Holbein might be summed up as a depiction of incrutability, while his lowly origins caused the great men of his day to emphasize his nobody-ness. But “sleek, plump, and densely inaccessible,” Thomas Cromwell, as Ms. Mantel calls him, turns out to have been simply waiting to be taken up, and issued a soul,” Ms. Powers wrote.
“In “Wolf Hall,” Ms. Mantel provided fictional substance to young Thomas Cromwell, son of a ferocious Putney blacksmith and brewer,” Ms. Powers wrote. “She advanced quickly to his role as husband andf father, and set him up as Cardinal Wolsey’s righthand man, before the prelate’s precipitous fall. From then on, throughout the entire trilogy, Ms. Mantel slips back in time to pick over Cromwell’s memories, fantasies, and dreams. Under his hat is a twilight arena of remberance and regret, peopled by the dead. Wolsey’s disgrace, his death, and his enemies’ gloating joy, are the subjects are the source of Cromwell’s ceaseless rumination, as are the deaths of his wife and daughters, and eventually of Thomas More, whose beheading in July 1535, brings the first volume to a close. By this time, Cromwell , now principal secretrary to Henry VIII, has made himself indespensable, most particilarly in managing the king’s break with Rome, establishing him as the head of the English church, and bringing about his marriage to Anne Boleyn.”
“In contrast to the great sweep of time encompassed by “Wolf Hall,” “Bring Up The Bodies,” (2012), the second installment covers less than a year, though with the usual forays into the past,” Ms. Powers wrote. “Cromwell’s power grows, and he begins an inventory of chuch property, the initial step in seizing and redistributing it. Still, the problem of Henry’s marriage, is once again paramount. Anne has lost favor, repeatedly failing to produce a male heir. Now, mousey Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall has caught Henry’s fancy, and it is Cromwell’s task to free him to marry again. Moreover, mutual hatred between Cromwell and the Boleyn’s had reached such intensity, that each side is angling for the death of the other. Ever the fixer, Cromwell maneuvers Anne to the executioner’s block, along with her brother (and putative lover), George Boleyn, and four other men charged with the treasonable act of sleeping with the Queen.” “He needs guilty men,” “Cromwell reflects,” “so he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not as guilty as charged,” Ms. Mantel wrote. “In fact, their guilt lies in conniving his patron, Wolsey’s downfall, and mocking him after his death,” Ms. Powers wrote.
“This is the state of play as we open up, “The Mirror And The Light,” Ms. Powers notes. “It begins in May 1536, with Anne’s corpse shoved into a chest meant to ship arrows, her detached head snugged in at her feet — a fitting touch to the end of a life of hardheaded ambition. Henry, divorced and widowed, marries Jane Seymour of doomy Wolf Hall, and Cromwell appointed Lord Privy Seal, continues his ascent. He carries on developing the ligaments of the modern state, instituting registeries of births, deaths, and marriages, building roads and drains, maintaining “watercourses and sewers, charnel houses, and spoil heaps.” “Most dramatically, Cromwell pushes forward with the dissolution of the monastaries,” “turning monks into money,” Ms. Mantel wrote, “transferring their wealth and property to the king and his allies, to himself, and his friends. “Such largesse has the further effect of advancing the cause of Protestanism, now more clearly than ever on Cromwell’s agenda. He knows that a return to Rome would oblige those who profited from the seizures to restore church property, and wealth. But, the great issus of succession is as vexed as it ever was, and the desperate hope is that Henry’s new wife will produce a son.”
“Until that comes to pass, there are a number of noteworthy rivals for the heir to the throne — though disease and execution take care of a few,” Ms. Powers wrote. “Still, Mary Tudor remains a big problem; firmly Roman Catholic, she refuses to sign the oath acknowledging Henry as head of the English church, and conceding her own supposed illegitimacy. Moreover, rumor has raised the specter of her marrying Reginold Pole, scion of the Plantagenets, now skulking and conspiring somewhere on the Continent. It takes Cromwell, master of persuasion, with no taste for killing or torture, to convince this wayward daughter to sign the document — despite her true beliefs. It’s a coup for Cromwell, but there is trouble elsewhere. Encouraged by the Poles, among others, Northerners have risen in what they style the Pilgrimage Of Grace, calling for the restoration of their old religion. Ther fury is directed chiefly against the monster Cromwell, herertic and rapacious dissolver of monastaries.”
“History continues to unfold for the next 400-500 pages but, we must turn to what Ms. Mantel has accomplished in this enormous work,” Ms. Powers wrote. “The entire trilogy is a brillian engagement with the exercise and metaphysics of power in 16th-century Europe, an age in which sovereignty was understood to be divinely conferred, channeled through blood. This puts the emphasis on bodies, one of Ms. Mantel’s specialties,” Ms. Powers noted. “Throughout the work, she has given grisly attention to flesh and blood, writing with macarbre relish of the horrors inflicted by various methods of judicial killing: decapitation, hanging, drawing and quartering; burning at the stake. She fills Cromwell’s head with such ghastly scenes, among them the executions of Anne’s supposed lovers, their” “corpses, promiscuous, heaped upon a cart: their pale English limbs intermingled, their heads in sodden bags.”
“The body of greatest significance is of course, Henry’s, and Ms. Mantel magnificantly covers his corporeality and the understanding that the royal persson is synonymous with his kingdom,” Ms. Powers wrote. “To this end, she describes the king with stomach-turning specificity as his day begins:
— “While his beard is trimmed and his hair is combed, his physicians come in, and gather a black knot with their basins and urine flasks. They smell his breath, and enquire into his sleep and dreams;
— The poor old labourer owns his sleep and stool, and can sell his piss to the fuller, whereas the king’s piss and stool is the property of all England….Should he be costive, he is ordered a portion; should his bowel be loose, its prodict taken away in a bowl in an embrolied cloth….
— Once the king leaves his inner room and enters his privy chamber, his natural body unites to his body politic: here he is dressed and presented to the world, a bulky, new-barbered man, scented with rose oil.”
“Put crudely, bodies bring Cromwell down,” Ms. Powers wrote. “For one thing, he failed Henry in his promise to produce the perfidious schemer, Reginold Pole, or arrange his assassination abroad. Further, despite their having occassional interests in common, Cromwell has always been extravagantly resented by the choleric Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who is contemptous of his base birth and outraged by his presumption. There is even a rumor that Cromwell too, this upstart from Putney, means to marry Mary Tudor. And, now he insenses Norfolk disastorusly with an egregious affront to his family’s honor: closing Thetford Privy, where the duke’s ancestors are buried.”
“Most damning of all, is the unfortunate matter of Anne of Cleaves, whose marriage to Henry was brokered by Cromwell,” Ms. Powers wrote. “The union has much to recommend it as a political alliance against Catholic France and the Holy Roman Empire, but alas, Henry is repulsed by the woman he once referred to as “a great Flanders Mare.” “Despite the king’s eagerness to produce another male heir to supplement the baby Edward, born of the now deceased Jane, he is so put off by the woman that he cannot perform the needful.”
“Finally, and fatally,Cromwell”s own body fails him, and he is incapcitated by a bout of malaria at just the wrong time, leaving the field open for his many enemies, rivals, and turncoat friends to destroy him,” Ms. Powers wrote. Cromwell’s “promotion of Protestant doctrine and usage — his heresy, as it was deemed — is now brought to bear against him, along with trumped up charges of treason.”
“All this we can find in histories and biographies, but Ms. Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell’s inner workings, so credibly and vividly imagined, that make the work great, as do the characters she summons. Filtered through Cromwell’s eyes, with fantastical brio: The baby Elizabeth, the future queen is a “convulsing mass of linen, red flailing fists, a maw emitting shrieks,” Ms. Mantel wrote. ” “Reginold Pole’s appearance “gives no idea of the elaborate, useless nature of his mind, with its little shelves and niches for scruples and doubts.” “And, there is Norfolk, my favorite,” Ms. Powers wrote: Cromwell “never sees the duke with a sword at his side, without imagining himself run through: “Beg pardon Lord Cromwell, was that your heart?”
“Ms. Mantel has wonderfully conjured the mentality, the materiality, and channels of power in a vanished age,” Ms. Powers concludes. “And, in the case of Cromwell, the objectives, machinations, and emotions of an intricate mind. Her description of the relationship between Henry and Cromwell, ever precarious and delicate, is the trilogy’s focal point, and always arouses a frission of anxiety in the reader. Cromwell, so clear in his view of things, must manage the intractable potentate,” “a man of great endowments, lacking only consistancy, reason and sense,” Ms. Mantel wrote, “and must skate over the thin ice of his spoiled, superstitious, and volitale nature. For all its magnificance and scope, however” Ms. Powers wrote, “this final volume is really too long, with too many wearisome pages spent fossiclking through Cromwell’s proliferating memories. It is as if Ms. Mantel were loath to get to the fatal day, July 28, 1540, when the executioner’s ax will separate this bustling head from the “graceless slab of muscle and bone,” that was its body.”
Wow. What a review. I am disappointed that this last volume is too long; but, I have already ordered the book and very much look forward to reading it. Another book I highly recommend on Thomas Cromwell is “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life;” by British historian and author, Diarmaid MacCullough, which was published in 2018. Cromwell’s downfall began, Mr. MacCoullough wrote, when “He negotiated an alliance with German Protestant princes, [hoping to breathe new life into the Reformation] and in 1539, sealed this by providing Henry with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Unfortunately, the lady did not please; the king could not make love to her. Disgusted, and ashamed, Henry turned his resentment on Cromwell.” Though Henry had him beheaded, he later regretted it, and seemed lost without a trusted confidant and enabler.
For four hundred years, until the mid-20th century, many historians downplayed Cromwell’s influence, contributions, and importance, with many describing him as a “hack,’ a messenger, a hatchet-man. But, after much more scholarly research, opinion began to change, especially after Cambridge’s G.R. Elton “featured Cromwell as a central figure in the Tudor revolution in government, “The Tudor Revolution, 1953.” As Wikipedia explained, “Elton portrayed Cromwell as as the presiding genius, much more so than the king, handling the break with Rome; and, creating the laws and administrative procedures that re-shaped, post-Reformation England. Professor Elton wrote that Cromwell had been responsible for translating royal supremacy into parliamentary terms, creating new, powerful organs of government to take charge of Church lands, and largely removing the medieval features of central government.” Many historians agreed with Professor Elton, though perhaps not as enthusiastically.
In a November 18, 2018 article posted on the website of London’s The Telegraph,”Wolf Hall: Who Was The Real Thomas Cromwell,” the publication described him as a “brilliant lawyer, and a masterful political operator.
As the Greek philosopher Socrates once wrote, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Thomas Cromwell certainly lived an interesting life; and, I am looking forward to reading Ms. Mantel’s final work on one of history’s more consequential figures. Someone Machiavelli would have likely considered — cunning. V/R, RCP