It was comforting to slide back into the familiar mind of Thomas Cromwell as imagined by Hilary Mantel. If you haven’t tackled Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, it’s a very apt project for the lockdown – three enormous tomes, all of them quite hard work, all worth the effort.
They are novels told in the present tense, and the reader sees the world entirely through Cromwell’s eyes. They cover the period 1500 to 1540, the year in which Cromwell was executed.
The third in the trilogy, The Mirror And The Light, was published on 5 March 2020.
The novels have been criticised by some as impenetrable, but they are widely acclaimed. The first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Booker. The Mirror And The Light may deliver a hat-trick.
The content of these hefty volumes is challenging: the reader has to keep track of different dukes and lords as they gain and lose their titles and sometimes their heads. Reading the novels calls for patience and a willingness to look things up, if only in the list of characters given at the front of the books. Most readers will know the bare bones of the story, and what happens to the principals, yet the books are still like thrillers if you’re prepared to persist. Even dyed-in-the-wool historians may not recall who wields the dagger in each death.
Controversy has raged around the author’s decision to use the third person pronoun “he” to refer to Cromwell, instead of his name – an unusual device, which means the central character is not clearly differentiated from other male characters: the reader has to work it out. Many people found Wolf Hall infuriating to read, often not knowing to whom “he” referred; so the next two volumes use the device “he, Cromwell”. The following passage describes Anne Boleyn’s executioner:
“The man turns away and begins cleaning his sword. He does it lovingly, as if the weapon were his friend. ‘Toledo steel.’ He proffers it for admiration. ‘We still have to go to the Spaniards to get a blade like this.’
“He, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal. You would not guess it to look at him now, but his father was a blacksmith; he has affinity with iron, steel, with everything that is mined, from the earth, or forged, everything that is made molten, or wrought, or given a cutting edge. The executioner’s blade is incised with Christ’s crown of thorns, and with the words of a prayer.”
Someone ought to try printing out all three books with normal grammar, to see if the reader still inhabits Cromwell’s skin, breathes through his nose, looks through his eyes. I’d guess: probably not, or not to such a full extent.
The historian G R Elton reckoned Thomas Cromwell was “unbiographable”. Elton wrote England Under The Tudors, the history book to which I was glued as a schoolgirl. He was reputed to have reinstated Thomas Cromwell, believing him to be the pivotal character in the English Reformation and the architect of the modern state - not a mere pen-pusher as previously portrayed.
Cromwell was clearly a leading protagonist of the English Reformation, yet history generally deplores him. Perhaps the point is that he did not make his omelette without breaking eggs.
What Cromwell achieved was revolutionary – the monasteries came down with terrifying speed, and that is captured in the Wolf Hall trilogy. At the same time, the apparatus of the state was going up, meritocracy beginning to replace aristocracy. The king’s power was receding. Cromwell surfed the wave of nascent capitalism and didn’t hesitate to thrust feudalism and its trappings out of his way. He had a timely hand in the rise of nations and the diminution of the power of the Pope to control trade.
What drove him? In Mantel’s novels, his driving force chiefly seems to be determination to set up a dynasty of his own, one to rival that of the great aristocratic houses of England; to drag himself and his protegés out of the mud of Putney. A degree of workaholism – that treadmill which is so hard to step off. But Mantel also alludes to his evangelical Christian sympathies; his determination to get the Great Bible into every church, his attempts to save heretics from burning.
We occupy Cromwell’s mind in Wolf Hall and its sequels, but we don’t see much of God. Perhaps Mantel is clever in the way that she hints at his Reformist belief but keeps it shrouded, just as he himself must have had to bury his religious zeal in the secret places of his heart.
But I would have liked to see that fervour front and centre. In the modern West, few literally envisage the eternal fires of Hell and Damnation. None expect to be gruesomely executed by the state for wayward religious beliefs. Yet that must have been Cromwell’s theological reality, and he put his life on the line for it. His personal conviction about God was not at one with the king’s. To brush that fact of his life aside for the sensibilities of a modern readership is to jettison the intensity of the age.
And violence was part of that intensity. Mantel implies that Cromwell’s relationship with his king is a replay of the one with his father: in both, subversion is rewarded with severe brutality.
Cromwell’s beliefs paved the path which would make my Huguenot ancestors welcome in this Protestant country, escaping, as they were, from the devilry of Catholicism. Under Cromwell, the Church of England slid away from Lutheranism towards the more radical Calvinism: a subtle difference, but one that counts. He was accused of heresy as well as treason, victim – in part - of the internecine struggles within Protestantism.
It may be hard to credit it in the age of Love Island, but the sex life of the Tudor monarch was not the only game in town.
In addition to the books, there is a radio adaptation, magnificently read by Anton Lesser, and a TV adaptation starring Mark Rylance. Both do full credit to Hilary Mantel’s work, and I recommend them.