Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Synopsis from the book cover:

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘ňútruth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Some thoughts:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is described on the sleeve of the book cover as ‘a speaking picture, an audacious vision of Tudor England that sheds its light on the modern world.’

It is, of course, the sequel to Wolf Hall and I was too keen to read it to wait for the paperback to come out. I finished it a while ago and have been mulling over in my mind what to write about it. On balance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wolf Hall and I had just a little feeling of anti-climax about it, but then the novelty of Wolf Hall for me was the way Hilary Mantel not only brought the Tudor world alive but also how she overturned my ideas of both Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. As there is no denying that I knew that Anne Boleyn was not going to make a go of her marriage to Henry VIII, so there was little drama there for me. I didn’t even want her to escape her fate.

And yet, Bring Up the Bodies is still a brilliant book. It’s beautifully written, even if it is in the present tense, full of colour and detail so that there is no doubt that this is 16th century England, with vivid descriptions of the people, buildings, fabrics, and landscapes of both town and countryside.

One of the things that stood out for me in Wolf Hall was just how much of a family man Cromwell was, how much he loved and protected them. In Bring Up the Bodies, my overall impression of him is as a politician, a schemer and an implacable enemy. Right from the start he’s in the thick of the action as he and Henry are out hunting, flying their hawks. Cromwell’s are named after his dead daughters, a reminder of him as the family man, but immediately we are made aware that he is very much in the king’s service.  

He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and his merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. … he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business.  (pages 6-7)

Truly, a man not a man to ignore. A man to be wary of, and even though Henry fondly and familiarly calls him ‘Crumb’, a man needing to take great care of himself. Anne Boleyn, in contrast, by the end of the book is ‘ a tiny figure, a bundle of bones’  when she is brought to the scaffold. But Cromwell is not deceived:

She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive. If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe. (page 395)

However, this is not the end of Cromwell:

Summer, 1536: he is promoted Baron Cromwell. He cannot call himself Lord Cromwell of Putney. He might laugh. However. He can call himself Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. He ranged all over those fields, when he was a boy.

The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one. (page 407)

And so, on to the next book …