Thomas Cromwell is Henry VIII’s Principal Secretary, Master of the Rolls, Vicegerent in Spirituals. He is the king’s intellect and his conscience and his chain-mailed fist. And he cannot sleep. ‘How many men can say, as I must’, he asks his nephew Richard, ‘“I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything … And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.’ Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume in Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy about the precariousness of those who stand, as the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt wrote, ‘upon the slipper top of court’s estates’. Wolf Hall saw the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey; Bring Up the Bodies tells of Anne Boleyn’s demise; and in The Mirror and the Light, we are led to expect, Cromwell himself will be dispatched to the Tower.
The events recounted in this novel are well known: Anne Boleyn miscarries Henry’s much-hoped-for son; Henry falls in love with Jane Seymour; Cromwell collects – some might say creates – evidence of Anne’s adultery with gentlemen of Henry’s privy chamber and of incest with her brother; the accused are executed. But events, dear boy, are not everything. Bring Up the Bodies – every inch as well wrought and serenely written as its predecessor – is, like Wolf Hall, a map of Cromwell’s hinterland. Every impression on his taut, responsive inner life is recorded. It is hard to overstate the skill with which Hilary Mantel drives her story through what is, essentially, a series of business meetings. True, some are the claustrophobic closet dramas of the interrogation chamber, but many are not. Cromwell meets Katherine of Aragon in her damp, fenny prison at Kimbolton to scrutinise her ailing health; he meets the Seymours to plot Jane’s enticement of the king; he discusses alliances with Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor. All these encounters are recounted with Cromwell’s attentive commentary.
Mantel’s Cromwell is one of the most complete creations of modern English fiction, not only due to his accomplishments – he is a linguist, a merchant, a lawyer, a soldier, a diplomat, a religious controverter, a bureaucrat, a literary critic of fine discrimination, a man as adept with his hands as with his brain – but due to the subtle shading of his character. This advocate of poor relief acquired his wealth through corruption. His quips are sharp but never flippant: they carry an undertow of hard truth. After Cromwell has expounded scripture to Jane Seymour, her brother remarks that ‘he should have been a bishop’. ‘Edward,’ he says, ‘I should have been Pope.’ He is only half-joking. He is an amiable friend and surrounded with admirers, yet prefers to commune with the dead: his wife and two daughters, taken by the sleeping sickness, his vanquished enemy Sir Thomas More, and his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, whose overthrow Cromwell revenges as he brings Anne to her knees (‘He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged’).
Paramount is Cromwell’s alertness (the novel begins with a swooping of hawks), the prehensile care with which he probes his interlocutors and weighs his own replies. There are biographical and historical reasons for his circumspection. His father would violently beat him without provocation; he served as a mercenary in the French army. And, as a commoner in a court manned by the greatest families in England, he must measure his words precisely, so their force never causes affront.
Great historical novels do not just recreate a period but instruct us about the nature of history, its movement and its myths. The Tudors are fertile territory because it is here that the conception of the bureaucratic state we know today – ‘The Tudor Revolution in Government’ that the historian Geoffrey Elton attributed to Cromwell – straddles the romantic vision of a Merrie England of tourneys and ‘Greensleeves’ and dancing around the maypole. A drama of class struggle is wired into Bring Up the Bodies, the thrashings of feudalism as it is strangled by the upstarts. The old order’s destruction is foreshadowed by the novel’s single aborted joust, which is abandoned before it has even begun after Henry falls from his horse and is feared dead.
The texture of the language reminds us of what is passing. For the most part it is entirely contemporary, capable of embracing ‘French fuckwit’ as an insult, but very occasionally Mantel pricks it with an archaism: ‘the cup my forefather was given by John of Gaunt his own hand’; ‘we had great venison pasties made against your coming’; ‘about eleven of the clock’. And in such an unflustered novel, in which the composure of the narrative voice is a measure of Cromwell’s mastery of politics, three bursts of vitriol at Cromwell – from the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Norfolk and the king himself – resound impotently. Cromwell manhandles the two dukes out of the way; and Henry, who accuses Cromwell of thinking that ‘you are king, and I am the blacksmith’s boy’, comes as close as a king can to apologising. The old families can only fume at their replacement by people such as Cromwell; and even though Henry tries to convince himself that he is replete with all the princely virtues, he knows that he cannot flourish without Master Secretary.
A moderniser, Cromwell dreams of carrying out a census: ‘his ideal would be a single country, a single coinage … one language that everybody owns’. He is one of those great and terrible administrators, a forebear of Robespierre (another of Mantel’s characters, in A Place of Greater Safety) and the commissars of the Soviet Union, whose unquenchable energy for remoulding society inevitably led them to drill into men’s souls. There is a foetid closeness to the novel’s climax, as Cromwell interrogates the dead men walking, whose fates have been decreed before any confession or denial has been made. Cromwell is a master of construal, who can summon evidence from vacuum. When questioning George, Lord Rochford, Anne Boleyn’s brother, he recalls Thomas More: ‘I listened to the murmurs within his silence. Construction can be put on silence. It will be.’ He pities another prisoner, Henry Norris, for his continued adherence to chivalric values, for believing that ‘with eloquence, with sincerity, with frankness, he can change what is happening’. This is the flipside of the benevolent, expanding state that taxes the rich and delivers welfare – a surveillance that sees what it wants in people’s minds.
Hilary Mantel’s prose is as stately and well balanced as a pavane. She prefers short words and terse sentences, which shine freshly in her combinations: ‘The light shivers, then settles against dark wood like discs pared from a pearl.’ She can enliven a dead metaphor with a flick of her pen. When she writes, of reports of Anne’s miscarriage, that ‘already a certain line is being spun’, the presence of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, gossiping over their needlework, invigorates a commonplace of modern politics. In her afterword, Mantel notes that Thomas Cromwell ‘is still in need of a full and authoritative biography’. In the shadow of her Cromwell novels, any such work will feel flat and unsatisfactory.