Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is an elegant and gripping masterpiece. It vividly brings to life sixteen century England: the vice and virtue, the clash of interests between the church and the state, the salacious and often deadly palace intrigue. The writer successfully gets into the minds of the nobles, the cardinals and the gentry.
It is now 1535, and Thomas Cromwell is Hilary Mantel’s main protagonist in Bring Up The Bodies. Thanks to him, the pious scholar, Sir Thomas More was sent to the tower. Although Thomas Cromwell cannot think of dying men without his mind straying to ‘the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe.’ And thanks to Cromwell the 20-year marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon is ended.
The king is now unhappily married to Anne Boleyn. Once again the queen, as history ominously repeated itself, cannot give Henry a male heir. Whenever a son was born, it mysteriously perished within a few days its birth. Like the first queen, Anne Boleyn, gave the king a daughter, Elizabeth. But at the time, a queen at the throne of England was unthinkable. Henry was frustrated and angry: though powerful enough to create a church, the Church of England, he could not put a male child in his queen’s belly.
Gossip was also rife of Anne Boleyn’s wantonness. Henry believed that there was some flaw in his second marriage and that because of it he was made to suffer the wrath of God. He looks to Thomas Cromwell to erase his second marriage to unfaithful Anne while he turns his lecherous eyes to Jane Seymour. Whenever Henry wanted someone stricken, he knew which of his subjects to turn to, and Cromwell as always rose to the occasion. Once again, as with Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell fixes his mind on the complete destruction of the king’s enemy.
When one of his lackeys asked if Henry’s freedom from his wife can be obtained ‘less bloodshed’, he answers: ‘once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.’
He manages with both guile and cruelty to extract a ‘confession’ of infidelity with the queen from four men: including the queen’s own brother. As with More, the charge against the king’s enemies was treason. Cromwell’s prey didn’t have a chance. The aim of course was the complete eradication of the queen, Anne Boleyn. One of the men was accused of having secretly married the queen but ‘had forgotten’ about it. Despite their initial protests of innocence, he urges them to confess for the sake of their own wives and families since the king ‘never extends his animosity to widows.’
The men, fearing for their families, and knowing there was no escape from a charge invented by Cromwell, did just that. Thus the end of Henry’s second marriage, like the first, was decided on the scaffold, using a French executioner who first ‘boobs on his knees to ask pardon’ from his victim, before lowering his wretched hatchet. Thomas Cromwell was made a baron for his efforts. The scrapping for the spoils soon followed, with many keen to help themselves to the privileges and wealth previously accorded to Anne Boleyn, her family and those who waited on them.
The focus of our attention is of course Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who ran away from home to escape the fists of his father. His role in settling his king’s affairs in so final a fashion is the story. He could take an abominable rumour, turn it inside out, and shape into a believable charge of treason. He would then ‘dig out a jury’, and bully it to a guilty verdict. To gratify his belligerent king, he would not rest until the victim has been marched to the scaffold and beheaded.
The reader struggles to find heroes in this magnificent creation by Hilary Mantel. Cromwell’s role is the story. Besides his blood thirsty nature, Cromwell has a genius for character analysis. He seemed to have a clear sense of humanity’s attributes and short comings. He knew that by attending to his king’s insatiable and dirty desires, and dishing out patronage to some of his subjects he would not only survive but thrive. This was not a world that he created, but perhaps more than most did his best to cast his line in its trouble waters.
Cromwell surely deserves his wretched reputation as a villain. He is a moral monstrosity. He was very ruthless in pressing his cause, and had the blood of the innocent on his hands.
But he was man’s creation and, though deformed, its representative. Perhaps our passions are deeply disturbed by him because we faintly recognise ourselves in his character. You cannot condemn Cromwell without pointing a fierce finger at his king. You cannot hack him down without doing so to the rest of mankind with their blind and boundless devotion to tyrants. You could not miss the pungent presence of his idolaters who dwelt with him in his abyss, and only lived to loot the wealth of his victims.
The novel is also a reminder at the terrible plight of women. It depicts a world, very similar to ours, where men were praised for their dalliances, and ‘unfaithful Anne’ was executed for simply not giving her husband a male heir. Women had to always bend themselves to the savage ways and seduction of men.
This is the genius, audacity, eloquence and immensity of this sublime book: it is not just about the Tudor world, but it is about life, and it enlarges our consciousness about it.