I’d read and loved Hilary Mantel’s previous novel of the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister to Henry VIII, “Wolf Hall” and so had expected a lot from this sequel. It was delivered.
This is a brilliant book. Like “Wolf Hall” it feels rich both with scholarship and with a deep understanding of human nature. Also, like “Wolf Hall” it is a Booker Prize winner. Although it is a different book to the first, with a different and older Cromwell, and it seemed a harder edge.
“Wolf Hall” told the story of the rise of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In doing so it created a vivid, richly detailed and multi-layered picture of Tudor England. In comparison “Bring Up the Bodies” seems narrower in focus and more psychological, although no less vivid. The story takes place within the claustrophobic world of court politics, where the public and private are deeply entwined and gossip can be made a deadly weapon. We watch as Cromwell manoeuvres to secure the downfall of Anne Boleyn and witness the events leading to her eventual execution.
This book is about lots of things. One strand I particularly liked was where it touched on chivalry and the knightly tournament. One key scene is the impact on the court of Henry being seriously injured in a joust. It has interesting things to say about sex and about friendship, and the limits of friendship.
But at its heart this is a book about power. The use and abuse of power, and the effect that the exercise of power can have on people. It talks of the soft power of rumour and reputation and the hard power of law and force. It explores power in the relationships between men and women. There is nothing quaint or “olde worlde” about the Tudor court that Mantel describes. There is also much here that I felt had a resonance with contemporary politics.
As we watch Thomas Cromwell going about his business it struck me that he was in many ways living the life of a modern cabinet minister. He seems always to be travelling to and from meetings or working late into the night on his paperwork. Many a modern professional politician would also recognise his constant worries. The need to square away colleagues and keep an eye on rivals, the difficulties in sifting through a mass of talk and gossip to find the relevant information, and above all there is the pressing need to keep in with the “boss” and anticipate his desires.
The story is told from Cromwell’s viewpoint and so we sympathise with him. This I think is at the heart of the cleverness of the book. My experience in reading it was to go along with Cromwell, to become a kind of accomplice, as he plots and schemes and the story builds. Yet I didn’t really fully register the reality of what he is about until the emotional impact hit home suddenly in the last third of the book. In seeking to accommodate King Henry’s whims and desires and to safeguard the interests of the state and the nation as he saw it, as well as pursuing his own agenda of ambition and revenge, Cromwell is engaged in engineering and finding justifications for the deaths of several, largely, innocent people. That is not to say that Cromwell reaches the end of the book unscathed by the events that have taken place.
This is a story of court politics, and a deadly one at that, so I am worried about taking the comparison with our democratic politics too far. I’ve tried to think of other parallels. Who are the modern Cromwells?
Given the mix of the personal and political I’ve played with idea of the career of a corporate lawyer working for a contemporary Russian oligarch or media mogul. Perhaps the trusted adviser who smoothed the way for Wendi Deng to enter the Murdoch clan and arranged Rupert’s divorce from first wife Anna, which is apparently the most expensive divorce in legal history. But that doesn’t really work.
In looking for a modern Cromwell the comparison I kept coming back to was with Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussain’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The sophisticated “man of business” respected for his political skill in diplomatic circles around the world but something of an outsider in the court of the charismatic but capricious tyrant he, willingly, served. A man with blood on his hands without question — but blood in the form of ink stains on the hands of a diplomat and administrator.
Yet, I wonder if that comparison is quite fair to Cromwell — or indeed to Henry VIII.
In “Bring Up the Bodies” Mantel gives us Thomas Cromwell’s verdict on Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. He finds it wanting;
“The book seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions – virtue, terror – and small particular instances of base conduct or flawed calculation. Perhaps he could improve on it, but he has no time;”
A treatise on politics written by Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to be the right-hand of a king and a founder of the Church of England, would make a fascinating read. But would it contain a warning to beware of princes? That was a lesson that Machiavelli knew well, suffering as he did at the hands of the Medici. And it was one that Cromwell was to learn — suffering a worse fate at the hands of his Tudor prince.
But that fate will be dealt with in Hilary Mantel’s next book in this series. I can’t wait!
Buy ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel