He is a wily one, Thomas Cromwell. Or, Hilary Mantel’s version of him is, anyway. Or perhaps it’s Mantel herself. Because what she does with this character and this story in Bring Up The Bodies, sequel to 2009’s phenomenal Wolf Hall, is nothing short of astonishing.
He was someone you could love in his previous outing, there’s the bother of it. Clever, progressive, dryly funny and frighteningly competent, you followed him with delight whether joking with his household, managing the King’s rages, mourning Cardinal Wolsey or exchanging barbs with Thomas More. ‘He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury’, says Mantel, and we believe her. His grief for his lost family is spare and moving. His ascension to councillor of the highest rank is nothing less than he deserves.
And here he is again, and we greet him like an old friend, but it doesn’t take long before we sense that something is amiss. There is blood, in Bring Up The Bodies, and we can smell it from the opening pages, as falcons named for his dead children fly down to his fist with gore on their breasts. Cromwell is riding high in the King’s esteem, but events are no more settled than they were: Henry is already beginning to wonder about the validity of his second marriage, and Cromwell, grieving for the deposed Wolsey, will not be the one to obstruct him. As the King becomes more volatile and Anne Boleyn more desperate, the adaptable Cromwell has to manouevre himself into positions we’d rather he avoid. He has always been, at heart, an underhand, scrappy fighter in the gutter. We’ve just never had to watch him do it before, and Mantel doesn’t spare us. Whatever happens to her creation here, we are as present in it as we always were. It’s an art, one of the best, to write with such immediacy and beauty together.
There’s a pivotal scene in the book that goes some way to explaining how Cromwell ends up manipulating Anne and her supposed lovers to their deaths. Henry takes part in a jousting tournament, there is an accident, and for two hours the court thinks he is dead. There is immediate, frightening chaos – Cromwell stands over the dead king, frantically calculating, while the queen has hysterics, the noblemen clamber to take charge and the Princess Mary is in serious danger. He’s not dead – you may have guessed – but the fragility of the Tudor peace is made horribly clear. No succession plan. No friend for Cromwell, outside of the King. So when Anne Boleyn fails to produce a son and must be removed, there is no one more eager to get the job done than the King’s chief minister.
Still, we can’t help but feel a little betrayed. It feels beneath him, this plotting, this executing men on fabricated charges. And once the executions are over, Queen Anne’s ‘flat little presence a puddle of gore’, Cromwell raises his glass with an image of a slaughtered henhouse in his head. He only has four years before the axe himself, and while he doesn’t know it yet, we sense it.
‘His smile is implacable. He says, ‘Drink my health.”
It’s a testament to Mantel, to the understated truth of her writing and the character she’s created, that we swallow our unease and toast to him anyway.