More than any other book I can think of Wolf Hall impressed upon me the number of people constantly present in a pre-modern household of any size. The first book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, it teems with people coming in and out the main character’s presence, from its unforgettable opening — the novel’s first words “So now get up” on one billboard in Picadilly Circus in 2019 were enough to announce that the long-awaited third book was on its way — through Cromwell’s relentless rise, first into service of Cardinal Wolsey and eventually close service of King Henry VIII himself. People and relentless, swirling thought and action by Cromwell are what have remained in my recollection of Wolf Hall, which I read in 2010. Bring Up the Bodies, which I read in 2012, was less vivid to me, for all that it was a more concentrated dose of Henry’s court, conveying the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.
The Mirror & the Light begins the moment after Anne’s beheading, with Cromwell remembering not just to pay the executioner, but to pay him a compliment. “The [executioner] has performed his office with style; and though the king is paying him well, it is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse. Having once been a poor man, [Cromwell] knows this from experience.” (p. 3) Returning to the book some months after finishing it, I am struck again by how vivid every moment seems, how quickly I get caught up again in Mantel’s intense present-tense rendering of Cromwell’s final years.
Because I bought the book the first day it was available in Berlin, the lovely folks at the bookstore gave me a tote bag to cart it away with me — a welcome present to go with the 900-page novel. The bag bears the quotation, “Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart.” That knowledge hangs over practically everyone at court, and Cromwell most especially. He has seen Wolsey’s fall, and he helped to engineer Anne Boleyn’s. As a commoner raised to dizzying heights, he knows that all of his authority is borrowed from the king; it is one of the things that Henry likes about him. But Henry’s heart is most inconstant.
There are not just great scenes in The Mirror & the Light, there are lovely asides and tossed-off notions. “The cardinal, in his days as master of the realm, had spoken of God as if He were a distant policy adviser from whom he heard quarterly, gnomic in his pronouncements, sometimes forgetful, but worth a retainer on account of his experience. At times he sent Him special requests, which the less well-connected call prayers, and always, until the last months of his life, God fell over Himself to make sure Tom Wolsey had what he wanted. But then he prayed, Make me humble: God said, Sir, your request comes too late.” (p. 248)
Or just a page later, perspective on a long-reigning monarch: “Henry Wyatt says to him, ‘Thomas, I doubt I shall see another winter.’ One by one, these gentlemen depart, who served the king’s father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.” (p. 249)
Here, a more extended view of England and the world in Henry’s time, in Wolsey’s, and in Cromwell’s: “There was a day, before Wolsey, when the princes of Europe no more regarded England than they regarded [Ultima Thule], where they had never set foot. England bred sheep and sheep sustained it, but the women were said to be loose and the men bloody-minded; if they were not killing abroad, they were killing at home. The cardinal, out of his great ingenuity, had found some way to turn this reputation to use. He made his country count; he, with his guile and his well-placed bribes, his sorcerer’s wit and his conjurer’s wiles, his skills to make armies and bullion from thin air, to conjure weaponry from mist. I hold the balance, gentlemen, he would say: in any little war of yours, I may intervene, or not. The King of England has deep coffers, he would lie, and a race of warriors at his back: your Englishman is so martial in his character that he sleeps in harness, and every clerk has a broadsword at his side, and every scrivener will stick you with a penknife, and even the ploughman’s horse paws the ground.
“And so for a year or two it became a question: what does England think? What will England do? France must solicit her; the Emperor must apply. War itself, the cardinal preferred to avoid. Henry on French soil, curvetting on his steed, his visor lowered, his armour a blaze of gold: that is as far as it went, if you add in a few sordid engagements that consisted in churning up mud and blowing trumpets. If war is a craft, the cardinal would say, peace is a consummate and blessed art. His peace talks cost as much as most campaigns. His diplomacy was the talk of Constantinople. His treaties were the glory of the west.
“But once Henry began divorcing his wife, spitting in the Emperor’s eye, all this advantage was lost. The Pope’s bull of excommunication hangs over Henry like a blade on a human hair. To be excommunicate is to be a leper. If the bull is implemented, the king and his ministers will be the target of murderers, who carry the Pope’s commission. His subjects will have a sacred duty to depose him. Invading troops will come with a blessing, and the sins incidental to any invasion — rapes, robberies — will be allowed for and wiped out in advance.
“Lord Cromwell gets up every day … and he tries to think of a way to stop this happening.” (pp. 263–64)
Henry hangs over Cromwell, and appears in many of its pages, an unbridled id, a crafty judge of all those around him, a force of nature beginning to wane as age and hard wear start to take their toll. The cardinal, too, hangs over much of the action in The Mirror & the Light. Cromwell is ascendant for much of the book, and he recalls the debts owed to the cardinal who first raised him up, those whose slights led to the cardinal’s fall, and the responsibilities the cardinal left behind. He recalls all of these as thoroughly as he does Henry’s every act and whim, and he uses his position to square all the old accounts.
The king’s court glitters, but Cromwell harbors no illusions about its foundation. “[Cromwell] pictures Norfolk in his armoury, polishing the plate; diligent he rubs, till he can see his swimming face. The king’s companions are prepared to march [against a rebellion in the north]. So scented, the courtiers, so urbane: the rustle of silk, the soundless tread of padded shoes. But slaughter is their trade. Like butchers in the shambles, it is what they were reared for. Peace, to them, is just the interval between wars. Now the stuff for masques, for interludes, is swept away. It is no more time to dance. The perfumed paw picks up the sword. The lute falls silent. The drum begins to beat.” (p. 417)
Cromwell’s rise was long, and he attains dizzying heights. He is friends, as far as their positions allow, with the ambassador of Emperor Charles V, a French-speaking man from Savoy. Both enjoy the finer things their roles bring them; more, they enjoy the verbal jousting and the intrigues their positions require. Cromwell works hard and lives precariously despite, and because of, his power; but make no mistake, he loves what he is doing. It is what he has aimed his whole life toward. Making things happen; improving the realm, as he sees it; steering the ship of state as the faithful helmsman serving a hard captain. Mantel titles the last section of the book before Cromwell falls under suspicion “Magnificence,” and it is nearly 100 pages.
Fall he does, though, and quickly. Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves does not fare well. That cannot be the fault of the divinely anointed monarch; ergo, it must be the fault of its principal engineer: Cromwell. Disappointment quickly becomes treason in Henry’s heart, and Cromwell’s whole life still depends on that heart’s next beat. The French executioner from the first pages of The Mirror & the Light does not return, but the book ends with another beheading. As it must.