By Sasha Simic
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Bring Up The Bodies

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
Hilary Mantel
Issue 370

In Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel returns to the court of Henry VIII and the life of his foremost administrator, Thomas Cromwell, which she evoked so brilliantly in her last novel, Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall covered the eight years in which the “King’s great matter” of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon ran its course. Bring Up The Bodies spans a much more concentrated period of just eight months and ends with the execution of Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers in May 1536.

The book opens in the autumn of 1535. Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his wife of 20 years, is behind him. But the cost has been religious separation from Rome and the possibility of war with the Spanish Empire. Securing the divorce has made Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son from Putney, the nation’s most powerful statesman. After only two years of marriage Henry’s union with Anne Boleyn hadn’t produced the male heir he so desperately wanted.

And so it falls to the infinitely capable Cromwell to rid the king of Anne. Cromwell uses a lethal combination of shady legal manoeuvres and the threat of torture to implicate Anne on charges of adultery, incest and high treason. Cromwell ruthlessly removes Anne because the king demands it and the succession requires it. But with the others it’s more personal. Each had a role, eight years earlier, in the downfall of Cromwell’s patron and friend Cardinal Wolsey.

Mantel’s Cromwell is a wonderfully amiable figure. He’s intelligent, witty, religiously tolerant, logical in a world of medieval irrationality, and humane and tender towards his huge extended family.

The reader cannot help but like him. So when he uses the power of the state to break his enemies, the reader is implicated in his actions and it’s a shock. The parallels with our own time – a time of water-boarding, Guantanamo Bay and the brazen use of the law as an instrument of state power – are all too apparent.

And Cromwell’s success is contradictory. He is by far the most competent man of his time representing the best qualities of the ascendant bourgeoisie. But as he prospers Cromwell deludes himself that his class is now in charge: “Chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard.

The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.” Cromwell is premature. This is not yet a bourgeois world. He serves a feudal order. For all his authority, power still lies with the king and the aristocracy. Cromwell has climbed far up the social ladder. He seems to have forgotten that so had Cardinal Wolsey before him. This is a wonderful book.

Bring Up The Bodies is published by Fourth Estate, £20

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