Hilary Mantel Takes Thomas Cromwell Down
The Atlantic|April 2020
As the author’s remarkable trilogy ends, her epic hero’s self-mastery is newly in doubt.
Judith Shulevitz

In the first two novels of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel sings, as it were, the poem of his rise. This is Cromwell as epic hero. The son of a blacksmith and brewer from the hamlet of Putney, Cromwell has become both chief minister to King Henry VIII and the most powerful man in England aside from the king; some say he is more powerful than the king. Mantel’s Cromwell is omniscient—he has spies everywhere— and omnicompetent. He excels at ironwork, the culinary arts, the cloth trade, finance, civil engineering, legislation, and diplomacy. His wit is quick and endearing, except when it’s cutting. Above all, he plays Henry’s court with consummate dexterity, always several moves ahead of potential opponents.

In The Mirror & the Light, which closes the trilogy, we witness Cromwell’s fall. This is not a spoiler. You can Google his fate in eight seconds. Mantel’s job is to make the inevitable suspenseful, which she does by turning her protagonist into a tragic hero. In tragedy, the hero is blind to how he brings about his own doom, either because of hubris or because the gods have willed his ignorance, or both. Cromwell has become almost cocky. He has taken risks before, but he always exhibited near-perfect self-mastery. His profession requires dealing with “grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe,” Mantel writes in the middle novel. “Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy [and] calmness.” Now he allows himself treasonous thoughts: “It is I who tell [the king] who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.” And he records too-candid observations in a volume of advice for his protégés, “The Book Called Henry.” Mantel makes us wonder: Does Cromwell have himself fully in hand? If not, why not? What strange forces drive him; does he understand them; and, most important, can he control them in time?

When we leave Cromwell at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, he has just destroyed a queen, doing maximal damage in the process. The king, having tired of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and fallen in love with Jane Seymour, told Cromwell to deal with the situation. Cromwell did—he always does—but his methods were extreme. He choreographed the trials and convictions of Anne and her alleged lovers on either trumped-up or wildly exaggerated charges of adultery and incest. The public was treated to scenes of what can only be characterized as royal pornography, all of which turned on the theme of the king’s sexual inadequacy. Five men, including Anne’s brother, were beheaded. Cromwell plucked four of them out of the swirl of court gossip not because he thought they were guilty but to avenge his beloved late master, Cardinal Wolsey, who fell from power seven years earlier and whom the young men ridiculed for the court’s amusement.

As The Mirror & the Light opens, Cromwell is back at the scene of the execution. Anne’s body “swims in a pool of fluid crimson,” and he seems his usual hearty self, thinking about his second breakfast. In the background, however, Mantel is darkening the mood. In the previous novel, Anne’s attendants, veiled so as not to be tainted by association with her death, used their bodies to block the men approaching the corpse. “We do not want men to handle her,” they said. Now the shrouded women are silent, stylized; they force the men back with palms upturned. They could be dancers in a Greek chorus, or the Furies.

Beneath his bluster, Cromwell feels uneasy. When Anne had climbed the scaffold a few moments earlier, he’d found himself admiring her poise. But now other men make crude remarks. These offend him—he who planted the filthy thoughts in their head. “I’d have put her on a dunghill,” says Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. “And the brother underneath her.” Cromwell berates Brandon for lacking mercy. “By God,” says the duke, a rival. “You read me a lesson? I? A peer of the realm? And you, from the place where you come from?” Cromwell spits out: “I stand just where the king has put me.” Then he asks himself, “Cromwell, what are you doing?” But he waves away his disquiet: “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

Thomas Cromwell, speaking truth to a man who could harm him? We weren’t expecting that, and as will become clear, now is not the moment to be imprudent. The Mirror & the Light covers four years of Cromwell’s life, from 1536 to 1540. He is at the peak of his career. The king has made him a baron and appointed him the lord keeper of the privy seal, an office that gives him even more access to the king. Henry has also let him hold on to the titles of master secretary and vicegerent, a powerful new position in the English Church. “It is a thing never seen before,” says Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well.” Cromwell does what he did earlier, a manic whirl of endeavors that include filling the king’s coffers with revenue from monasteries confiscated from the Vatican and trying to reinforce England’s independence from the pope. His “cause,” as he calls it, is to publish a translation of the Bible. Everyone in the king’s realm should be able to read the Bible in English—if only to see what isn’t in it: popes, monks, counterfeit relics used by priests to fleece the poor.

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