By Hilary Mantel
Hilary Montel brings to life a man who died nearly 500 years ago, and until the 1950s was viewed by some historians as a mere agent doing Henry VIII’s bidding.
Montel’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who rose to become one of the most powerful men in Tudor England, is so vivid that a reader feels as if he or she is standing at Cromwell’s elbow as he does the king’s business.
A mercenary in his youth, Cromwell became an attorney and a merchant. He did business for Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England and an adviser to King Henry VIII. When Wolsey failed to negotiate an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he was accused of treason, arrested and was to be taken to prison at the Tower of London. He died on the way to London.
Cromwell had an eel-like ability to glide from one political side to another, not just surviving but acquiring power, influence, money and position. His knowledge of the cardinal’s business and his negotiating skills, among other talents, made him a valuable asset for Henry.
Among Cromwell’s many achievements, he helped get an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn and helped bring about the English Reformation and the Church of England. When Henry tired of Queen Anne Boleyn and her inability to produce an heir, Cromwell arranged her conviction on charges of adultery. She was beheaded in May 1536. Eleven days later Henry wed Jane Seymour.
Cromwell’s rise to power, his access to Henry VIII, and his growing wealth gave rise to jealousy among the aristocracy and powerful bishops. Henry VIII blamed him for encouraging his marriage to German Princess Anne of Cleves. Henry found her unattractive and had the marriage annulled six months later.
Cromwell was arraigned for treason and heresy, convicted and beheaded on July 28, 1540, the same day that Henry married Catherine Howard. Ironically, Catherine Howard was beheaded for adultery two years later.
The first book in the trilogy, WOLF HALL, runs from 1500 to 1535, covering the end of Cromwell’s service to Wolsey through to the death of Sir Thomas More. BRING UP THE BODIES covers the three-year period when Anne Boleyn was queen of England. The final book of the trilogy, THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT, covers the last four years of Cromwell’s life.
Mantel combines detailed research with exquisite writing and imagery. She allows readers into Cromwell’s thoughts as scenes unfold. She not only renders historical events, she lays out a feast of foods, images, clothing, jewels and myriad details of daily life in Tudor England.
She provides dimensions not available in nonfiction history books: Anne Boleyn’s arrogance and petulance, the spiritual conflicts faced by Wolsey and More when Henry wanted a divorce, Henry’s almost delusional sense of his own rectitude as a king, Cromwell’s understated personality and dry wit.
These three books are a monumental work, not for the unfocused and impatient, but ultimately brilliant and a rewarding read.
About the Author: Dame Hilary Mary Mantel, DBE, FRSL (1952 – 2022)
Hilary Mantel was the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, first for her 2009 novel WOLF HALL and then for its 2012 sequel BRING UP THE BODIES.
A writer of historical fiction, personal memoirs and short stories, Mantel is best known for her trilogy (WOLF HALL, BRING UP THE BODIES and The Mirror and the Light) about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.
Mantel was born Hilary Mary Thompson in Glossop, Derbyshire, to parents of Irish-descent but British birth. Her parents separated and she didn’t see hr father after she was 11. Her unofficial step father, Jack Mantel (1932-1995) moved in with the family, which relocated to Romiley, Cheshire.
Mantel attend a Catholic primary school and later a convent school but lost her faith at the age of 12. Exploration of her family background has inspired much of her fiction, including Giving Up the Ghost (2003).
In 1970, she attend the London School of Economics to study law and then transferred to the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1973. She married geologist Gerald McEwen in 1972. Five years later they moved to Botswana and later spent time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. McEwen gave up his work to manage Mantel’s business. They later divorced and then remarried.
Mantel’s first novel was Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985). She wrote a number of other books including Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) and her Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize-winning novel Fludd.
Her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992), about the careers of French revolutionaries Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award. The Gian, O’Brien (1998), An Experiment in Love (1995) and A Change of Climate (1994)