Had you suggested to anyone 15 years ago that soon the most memorable, fascinating character ever brought to life in historical fiction would be Thomas Cromwell, you would have gotten one of two reactions: puzzlement (who?) or hilarity.
But that was before English author Hilary Mantel wove her spell in her trilogy of novels about the chief minister to King Henry VIII. She brings Cromwell’s unlikely, compelling story to a moving close in her brilliant new book, The Mirror & the Light.
Mantel’s first novel about Cromwell, Wolf Hall, was published in 2009 and won the Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle award and numerous other prizes. In 2012 she became the first woman to win the Booker twice, with her second Cromwell book, Bring Up the Bodies. Both books were bestsellers and became the basis for stage adaptations by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC miniseries.
Mirror opens right where Bring Up the Bodies ended, with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, in 1536. Cromwell’s machinations were instrumental in getting Henry’s first marriage, to Katherine of Aragon, annulled; in making Anne his new queen; and, when she failed to produce a male heir, in disposing of her. Cromwell’s campaign to turn Henry’s subjects against Anne has been so successful that her executioners don’t even prepare a coffin for her; her “narrow body” is unceremoniously placed in an empty arrow chest, her severed head at her feet.
“Henry could not wish them away, for all his power,” Cromwell thinks of the king’s wives. “Only I could do that. It is I who tell him who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.”
How Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith and a man of, as aristocrats love to remind him, “vile blood,” rose to be the second-most powerful man in England was the stirring story line of the first two books. In Mirror, we see Cromwell reach the zenith of his authority and discover that those who seize and keep great power make a multitude of enemies. And those enemies do not sleep.
As Mirror begins (spoiler alert for anyone who isn’t caught up on 16th century history), Cromwell has only about four years to live before he meets the same fate as Anne Boleyn, on the day that Henry marries his fifth wife.
Those four years are packed with significant events, including two more of Henry’s six marriages. Before Anne was dead, Cromwell had arranged the third royal union, with Jane Seymour, the mild-mannered opposite of the fiery Boleyn. Jane produces Henry’s much longed-for son but dies bearing him. Then Cromwell negotiates the king’s fourth marriage, sight unseen, to the German aristocrat Anne of Cleves. The pair’s first meeting, just before their wedding, gets a slyly funny twist from Mantel. History has always suggested the union failed (it was annulled within months) because Henry found his bride too plain to consummate it. But in this book’s telling, it’s Anne who is unable to hide her revulsion from the tubby, lame, middle-aged monarch.
Henry is, of course, the subject of Cromwell’s constant study and therefore of the reader’s. He is charming, domineering, self-indulgent, colossally egotistical and hence insecure. His courtiers are constantly managing him, trying to predict and direct his tempers and whims and desires, Cromwell most of all. “The age of persuasion has ended," Mantel writes, "as far as Henry is concerned. ... Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed, biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age. You will see Henry, profound in deception, take an ambassador’s arm and charm him. Lying gives him a deep and subtle pleasure, so deep and subtle he does not know he is lying; he thinks he is the most truthful of princes.”
Cromwell has more than the management of the king to worry about. England is in the midst of one of its most chaotic eras, with religious rifts, political feuds, class warfare and threats by foreign powers demanding his attention. Henry’s declaration that he is head of the Church of England has made him mighty enemies, not least the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, whom his minister must deal with delicately. Cromwell’s power of the kingdom’s purse also makes him responsible for doling out property and riches to Henry’s children (legitimate and not) and a host of squabbling, back-stabbing nobles.
There is much beauty in this book, especially in the luxuries of the court — Mantel’s rich descriptions of meals and fashions will make you want to eat plums and quail and then go shopping for embroidered velvets. More subtle beauties are found in Cromwell’s appreciation of the natural world, of tender dawns and icy nights. Mantel enthralls with her descriptions of royal life, from its bizarre rites and traditions to its practicalities — it takes eight men to make up Henry’s bed each night, shaking out all the linens and mattresses and, for one poor fellow, bouncing on the mattress to make sure no one has hidden a blade or poison within it.
That points to the other side of life in Tudor England: It is a constant banquet of violence, from murders in the street to uprisings like the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, which left multitudes dead in a religious and political war. Cromwell’s pursuit of Henry’s many enemies — for treason, for heresy, for adultery with his wives — keeps the executioners at the Tower of London so busy they sometimes must schedule multiple beheadings on one day.
To both the glories and the gore of Tudor England, Mantel brings an entirely contemporary eye. Her research is prodigious, her skill at complex plotting breathtaking, but her greatest strength is her characters and the dialogue she imagines for them.
There are plenty of them; the useful “Cast of characters” list at the front of the book is seven pages long, a half-page of them “The recently dead.” (There will be many more ghosts before Mantel is done.)
It’s endlessly fascinating to be inside Cromwell’s head, but it’s deeply entertaining to see him in conversation with others, whether it’s chewing over a problem with his affable son Gregory and the “boys” he has mentored to be his aides and successors, or his friendly sparring with the French ambassador Eustache Chapuys, or his far less friendly banter with the nobles who suspect the king’s minister wants the throne for himself. Unlike his master, Cromwell doesn’t underestimate women, and his interactions with them are among the most entertaining jousts in the book.
In the first two books, Cromwell was always the smartest man in the room. Sometimes we see him still ruthlessly clever; at one point he tortures a would-be poet accused of treason by reading the man’s awful poetry out loud. At other times he sinks into reveries of the past and even questions his own actions.
Does Cromwell not foresee his fate, or is he resigned to it? Is he essentially a good man who does many, many bad things, or is he one of those villains, like Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Iago, who gets all the best lines?
If you’re thinking of stocking up on books in case you have to stay home in the near future (Mantel’s characters are dealing with the plague themselves), consider The Mirror & the Light. At 757 pages, every one beguiling, it will keep you in good company all by yourself.
The Mirror & the Light
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 757 pages, $30