What I'm Reading
The final part of this wonderful trilogy opens with the beheading of Anne Boleyn. Ah, Cromwell. Welcome back, my old friend.
The story about King Henry VIII's quest for power and an heir concludes in this hefty volume. What makes this different from the raft of other books about this glamorous Tudor monarch who changed England forever is that it is from the perspective of his chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell. In the previous books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) we see him rise from a wily lad from Putney, a blacksmith's son, to become a lord, as he is in this book. The title is given as a reward for his handling of the dilemma Henry finds himself in, namely, how to dispose of his two wives who have failed to provide a male heir.
With the two marriages cancelled out, the children - two princesses - are set at the same level as Henry's other illegitimate children and therefore the line of succession becomes an open field. The political state in England is intense, with the thwarted Protestant families of Anne Boleyn against the Spanish Catholic families fighting the corner for Princess Mary. Added to that is the son who was born outside of wedlock whose family see him in as much of a chance as the the 'former' princesses. And this sticky situation is for Cromwell to sort out.
He realises that fortunes can turn quickly in Tudor England and Cromwell's head could be next on the block. He has to have his wits about him if he is to survive, so he remains alert and keeps a knife close to his heart. Sometimes the king needs to be assured that God is happy with his decisions as well. The complexities are expressed well and the family trees and who's who at the beginning of the book are helpful if you are not fully aware of the players in this time in history. I have the advantage of knowing it very well, having taught it for years to 'A' Level classes, but it could be confusing without the added script and charts.
A political and tense story, told with the grandeur it deserves in the way only Hilary Mantel can do it. Her writing style remains unique and is part of the appeal. Initially, in the first book, 'He, Cromwell' seemed very jarring and unnecessary. Now it is comfortable and part of Cromwell's story and I would miss it if it were not here. The detail is exquisite as is the narrative. My favourite scene is a strange little section near the beginning when Cromwell has bought a tabby cat, which escapes from his house. It climbs a tree and people try to catch it with a net. The imagery of the cat looking through the spaces in the net as it sits on a branch is simply poetic.
Cromwell, Henry and the other characters are portrayed fully and expanded by every ounce of information available to historians. I particularly like how the Lady Mary is described as sometimes appearing twice her age and other times as an underdeveloped child. Every event, rumour and suspicion is portrayed as it would have been at the time, so the sense of time and place is as perfect as it can be, including the superstitions and beliefs that drove folk at that time. In spite of the perfectly captured Early Modern Era there is also, paradoxically, a feel of intimacy, of being there, of smelling the room and places where the story unfolds. This is Mantel's special power.
The conclusion to the trilogy takes an overview and puts everything in perspective, the story of Cromwell and Henry's reign. It is a fitting end to a masterpiece of art, of history and of humanity. Although I knew the ending I experienced it with fresh eyes. Goodbye my friend, thank you for the journey. He, Cromwell, is no more.
Published by Fourth Estate on 5 March 2020.