This was the third in the trilogy of Thomas Cromwell’s life living under Henry VIII. The first was Wolf Hall and the second was Bring Up The Bodies. I think her titles are particularly interesting because they are not what they seem. Wolf Hall is the Seymour family seat in Wiltshire and Jane Seymour (Henry’s yet to be third wife) is just a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn (his second wife, who he has not yet married in this book). Wikipedia (and an article on BBCAmerica) suggests that the title is an allusion to a Latin expression which roughly translates “Man is wolf to man.” Well that may be true under horrific tyrants like Henry VIII. But I think Wolf Hall is a terrific title that suggests something far off. Wolf Hall shows how Thomas Cromwell worked the system to twist Henry’s 20 year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (mother of Mary) into an illegal marriage which allowed it to be annulled. It ends with Thomas More’s decapitation.
Bring Up The Bodies refers to the guards in the Tower of London who, on the day someone was to be executed, would shout down the staircase, “Bring Up The Bodies.” Gruesome, but emblematic of how Henry VIII reigned: by execution. He is thought to have executed some 50,000 people who were not loyal to him, refused to recognize him as the head of the English church, or were just treasonous. The second book deals with his disintegrating marriage to Anne Boleyn, who is probably the second most famous person in Henry VIII’s orbit, as her story is the most dramatic and terrifying. Though she bore Elizabeth, who would eventually become “the virgin queen,” after her brother Edward (by Jane Seymour) and Mary (by Katherine of Aragon), she could not bear other children and so, with Cromwell’s help, a conspiracy was concocted and she was accused of having many lovers (most of the king’s privy counsel) and incest with her brother George Boleyn. She was decapitated the day after most of the king’s counsel were hanged. A second book in the series that ends with a decapitation.
So the third, obviously, is going to end in a decapitation and this time it will be the main character’s: Thomas Cromwell, who, in this horrific and murderous reign, is turned on for no clear reason, other than having arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves who Henry found repulsive and could not touch. The tile of this one refers to Henry himself, who is both the mirror and the light: one cannot see oneself or judge oneself except by him. This was the hardest to get through. Jane is dead, having passed soon after giving birth to Edward, and there are hundreds of pages of governing, collecting taxes, fighting battles with the Scottish, worries about France and Spain and, of course, the power of the Pope. Increasingly, you sense Cromwell is making more enemies and he has also risen to be the most powerful of the king’s secretaries. But once Henry meets his fourth bride to be, you feel the tables turn and the loss of the king’s approbation. As you zero in on the last hundred pages or so, reading this book becomes almost frightening and it’s because she has for 1800 pages through all three books, kept us firmly rooted in the Thomas Cromwell’s mind. At this point, because of the time you’ve spent with him and because of Hilary Mantel’s skill in making you really feel what it was like to live and eat and walk around in those days, and even, I would say, live under a cloud of inevitability — that one day Henry will turn on you and send you to the Tower, you don’t want to continue. You want to leave it unfinished and not follow Cromwell to the Tower and then to the place where he is going to put his head on the chopping block, while people, including his children, watch.
But she manages, I think, to make the end both horrific and bearable, because I think she allows the character of Cromwell to make it bearable for us. She allows us to find comfort with Cromwell, not just for him, before the axe finally lands on the back of his neck.
She gives an addendum, in her own voice, pointing out that Cromwell was executed the very day Henry was married to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who would later be executed for committing adultery with a distant cousin Thomas Culpepper. But if you do a little more reading, there’s not really very much explanation for why Thomas Cromwell was executed, and his children, in fact, continued to work in Henry’s court. One thing these books made me feel, is how fortunate we are not to live under authoritarian regimes and how frightening it is that so much of the world seems intent on bringing back some of that style. For his final days in office, Trump has decided to execute five federal prisoners, making it a total of 13 since July. One gets the sense this is as just as arbitrary as Henry VIII’s nonsense.