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Hilary Mantel: The Mirror and the Light

It is now eight long years since the previous book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga was published, Bring up the Bodies. Given that this one is 912 pages long, you can see why Mantel took so long to write it. Has it been worth the wait? Absolutely. While you could probably read this one without having read the previous two, I would not recommend it. It is 912 pages for a reason. There is a lot going on and a huge cast of characters and you really need to know what happened before and who, at least, the key characters are, to fully appreciate this book.

Mantel plunges us straight into the main action as we start with the beheading of Anne Boleyn. She spares us none of the gory details, including the fact that Boleyn and some of her servants clearly expected a last minute pardon, involving, perhaps, a transfer to a convent. Given that Henry VIII was about to marry Jane Seymour, this was never going to happen. Indeed, his marriage to Anne Boleyn was declared invalid so, as one of the characters remarks, as his union with Katherine was not valid either, he has never been married in his life. Twice a bridegroom yet never a husband.

At the start of the novel it is 1536. Cromwell is to die a bloody death. We know, because Mantel has told us. Historically, we know he died in 1540. Much of the early part of the novel has various characters warning him that Henry could change his view if things went wrong and/or if Cromwell antagonised too many of the wrong people, which he seems to be doing. Cromwell seems to think his position is safe, though he, of all people, should have known about the whims of Henry. Numerous people express their opposition to Cromwell, from the hereditary lords, who resent a jumped-up working class boy becoming one of them, to many of the ordinary people, from those who will revolt against the suppression of Catholicism to those who think his idea of parish registers is merely a way to tax them. Two particularly enemies are Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

Cromwell has many duties, most of which seem to be ensuring things run smoothly for the King and that no-one is plotting against him in any way, and everybody is doing what they are supposed to. Mantel, however, comments His chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old.

As we know from the previous books, he has a network of spies, normally at the servant level, both in England and abroad (as a young man he had spent much time abroad and spoke several languages) and seems to know everything about everybody. It is this network that helps him consider prospective wives for Henry and husbands for Princess Mary.

One of the key issues he faces at the beginning is Princess Mary, the future Queen Mary. She was the daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon and been excluded from the succession when Henry divorced her mother but was now agitating to be put back in favour, with the support of several Catholic-leaning nobles. Clearly, part of the problem is that Henry hopes that Jane Seymour will give him a son (which she does) which makes Mary’s claim irrelevant.

Jane Seymour is very devout and undoubtedly a virgin. Indeed, Mantel has her stating after the first night of the marriage, he wants me to do some very strange things. Things I never imagined a wife had to do. This may be partially due to the fact that, according to rumour, Henry is not longer able to perform in bed as well as he used to be able to. He is now very overweight and almost certainly suffers from type II diabetes, which may well be a factor.

We follow the birth of the future Edward VI and Seymour’s resultant death. Cromwell is at the forefront of the search for a fourth wife and responsible for the selection of Anne of Cleves (she is called Anna in this book, presumably to distinguish her from Anne Boleyn). We know this turns out to be disastrous as Henry finds her distinctively unattractive and assumes she is not a virgin. The marriage is soon annulled though, interestingly enough, Anne will remain in England for the rest of her life, receiving various properties as recompense, and will remain on good terms with Henry for the rest of his life, not least because she did not make a fuss about the annulment. She will be the longest surviving of his wives.

While Cromwell is not immediately blamed for the Anne of Cleves fiasco, it is certainly brought up when he is finally arrested and charged.

Cromwell’s skill is his ability firstly to anticipate what Henry wants and, secondly, to make sure Henry gets what he wants. He does this with a combination of innate cumming, inspiring fear in his (and Henry’s) enemies, his diligence and his skill at surrounding himself with clever acolytes, including his son Gregory (who will marry Jane Seymour’s sister) and his nephew, Richard, who is the future great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell.

Mantel sums up what he does as follows: He takes licence to enquire into any department of government or the royal household. He carries in his head the statutes of England, the psalms and the words of the Prophets, the columns of the king’s account books and the lineage, acreage and income of every person of substance in England. He is famous for his memory, and the king likes to test it. He himself sums up his skills: I am in awe of myself, he says. I never know what I will do next but adds You cannot falter, he thinks, and you must not. You must crunch up the enemy, flesh, bones and all. You cannot afford to fail.

There are numerous examples of key events in Henry’s reign, apart from the issue of his wives, where we see Cromwell in action. These include the opposition of the Catholics, both at home and abroad, resulting in the Pilgrimage of Grace and associated rebellions, heresy, the dissolution of the monasteries, relations with foreign powers, what to do with Princess Mary, who remains a fervent Catholic, the fall-out from the Anne Boleyn execution and, as he says, not carrying out some of Henry’s rash decisions without Henry being aware of this.

The historical Cromwell was not liked, being seen as Machiavellian, cruel and ruthless, which, to a considerable degree, he was. However, Mantel gives us a more complex portrait of the man. He is shown, in many cases, to be humane and decent. He is always defending and protecting the downtrodden, often taking in waifs and strays. He helps many people in distress and not just the ordinary people. Indeed, it is his actions, at least in this book, that save Princess Mary from an unpleasant fate at the hands of her father. He frequently pleads with the King to have people executed by beheading rather than the distinctly less pleasant burning at the stake or hanging, drawing and quartering. Indeed, the Governor of the Tower of London comments on this when Cromwell’s turn comes. He gets on well with the ordinary people, being an ordinary person himself.

However, anyone seen as an enemy, either to him or to Henry, is likely to receive the full force of his wrath and cruelty. He is not at all adverse to using torture, both psychological and physical, and not adverse to having people executed by any of three means mentioned in the previous paragraph. He himself attends many executions and, while he does not particularly enjoy them, he does not turn away. The list of people who have suffered at his hands is long and, clearly, while some may well have been wrongdoers, at least by the standards of the time or the standards of Henry VIII, some are punished on the flimsiest of evidence or for trivial (to us) reasons.

Reading this book made me wonder whether Mantel had any other political leader in mind when writing it. The considerable use of what used to be called rumours but which we now call fake news occurs throughout the book. Irrational decisions and advisers who try to avoid carrying out some of these irrational decisions, not to mention Henry VIII’s weight all seemed most topical.

This is a superb conclusion to Mantel’s trilogy. Her reinvention of the historical Cromwell is brilliant, showing us a complex but ultimately fascinating character. She digs deep into the history of the era and unless you are a professional historian, and perhaps even then, you will learn a lot more than you could have imagined about the era. However, if you are the sort for whom history is boring, do not be put off as this book is a novel, not a history, and Mantel tells us a first-class story.

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Fourth Estate