Fortunately, apart from C.J.Sansom’s splendid Shardlake sequence of novels, I haven’t spent much time with the Tudors over the years, so although I’ve got a vague idea what’s going to happen to Thomas Cromwell in the last instalment in what is now to be Hilary Mantel‘s compelling trilogy – although I know it doesn’t end well – I’m still on tenterhooks. Because if Wolf Hall (2010) was a tour de force, then Bring up the bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012) is even better. You are in there with this extraordinary man – the “blacksmith’s boy” (as the Duke of Norfolk sneeringly calls him) who ran away, who has been around, European mercenary, merchant, machiavel – the second most powerful man in the land, and one of the richest, the dark presence in Sansom’s books, here portrayed as the first modern Englishman; and you are rooting for him, doubting with him, taking a breather with him, regretting with him all the way, this long distance juggler of moralities and loyalties and memory for king, country, church, family and self. No abstract principles, but as good a man as he can afford to be, and, balancing all these labours, he certainly tries. Nor does it get any easier with the death of Henry VIII’s first wife and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and her chums; here we may see him at his worst, but you can understand it.
Hilary Mantel is an extraordinary writer. Where context is all – the court, the king’s domestic cares and woes, European empires and politics, cut through with scenes, moments of clarity, from Cromwell’s adventurous life and friendships – you still get sudden dazzling shafts resonating with contemporary (here, now) Britain. And her pacing is immaculate. You are drawn in, engaged with the action, his pleasures, the shifting emotional scenery, the tasks, the tensions, the comforts forsaken. You are in his head, you feel the history, see a society growing, where you come from.
Apart from the obvious dramatic events, these were particular highlights for me:
- Cromwell’s relaxing at Christmas with friends and family at his Stepney residence, coming home to the smell of apples after the stench and intrigue of the court and Katherine’s death-bed, though some of the entertainments are put to terrible use later;
- the questioning of court musician Mark Smeaton and the getting of his confession to be chief witness for the prosecution in the matter of Anne Boleyn’s alleged treasonous adultery (which is where the Christmas props come in)
- a reverie of bitter-sweet reminiscence of a discussion with a drunken Portuguese knight in Venice and the day after’s stroll taking in some exceptional works of art, only to be interrupted by Rafe coming in with the news that the king was dead (he wasn’t and TC is the first to realise it)
- the matter of poor Harry Percy’s second interview, too complicated to explain briefly here, but a delicious embarrassment calling for some real front to brazen it out
Something to give the flavour, and some lovely touches. Early on, TC’s work load:
His inner voice mocks him now: you thought you were going to get a holiday at Wolf Hall. You thought there would be nothing to do here except the usual business, war and peace, famine, traitorous connivances, a failing harvest, a stubborn populace; plague ravaging London, and the king losing his shirt at cards.
There’s the good old days to consider, a purer jousting:
… [Brandon] can slap the king on the back and call him Harry; he can chuckle with him over ancient jests and tilt-yard escapades. But 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.
And how’s this for joined up thinking?
In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field. England needs road, forts, harbours, bridges. Men need work. It’s a shame to see them begging their bread, when honest labour could keep the realm secure. Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?
This is the same man, giving himself a few seconds of contemplation, referencing (one could almost say name-dropping) one of the great portrait painters of his or any other age:
It is already nine in the morning. The dews of May Day have burned from the grass. All over England, green boughs are carried in from the woods. He is hungry. He could eat a cut of mutton with samphire, if any has been sent up from Kent. He needs to sit down for his barber. He has nor perfected the art of dictating letters while being shaved. Perhaps I’ll grow my beard, he thinks. It would save time. Only then, Hans would insist on committing another portrait against me.
The attention to detail is beautiful in its execution. Here news of Henry VIII’s infatuation with Jane Seymour has just got out:
‘There are rumours on the streets, and crowds who want to see her, and ballads made, deriding her.’
‘Ballads?’ Henry is shocked. ‘Find out the authors.’
[and later] ‘I have heard about these ballads,’ he says. ‘Cannot you suppress them?’
‘They’re nothing personal,’ he says. ‘Just warmed over libels from when Katherine was queen and Anne was the pretender.’
So here’s the Duke of Norfolk, expecting to be fed. Dressed in his best, or at least what’s good enough for Lambeth Palace …