I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificent conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and apart from feeling somewhat bereft (now that I no longer have the double Booker Prize winner’s exquisite evocation of Tudor England to immerse myself in during lockdown) I find myself reflecting upon some of its themes.
The Wolf Hall Trilogy is dominated by two characters – Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s lad from Putney who through his own remarkable intelligence and tenacity, rises to become earl and the monarch’s right-hand man; and Henry Tudor. Their tense friendship I will deal with in the next section, but here I wanted to consider the portrait of sovereignty Henry VIII offers. Far more complex and nuanced than many portrayals of the king over the centuries (in paintings; plays – Shakespeare’s last; novels; films; comic books; ad infinitum, it seems) Mantel’s Henry is intelligent, painfully self-aware, conflicted, and dangerous. The ultimate alpha male in many ways, his unconscionable treatment of his unfortunate (though often equally formidable) wives, heretics, religious real estate, sacred icons, and any one who got in his way or in his bad books, still qualifies him as the villain of the piece. Mantel does not white wash him in the least. And yet Henry’s extreme solipsism and terminally inflated ego – what we might call today a narcissistic personality disorder – is the result of the whole ridiculous edifice of royalty: that is inherent privilege, entitlement, and so-called noble blood. The whole machinery of state, the oil of society, and the sweat of the commoners, supports this invented status – as fictional as anything devised by the best storyteller. For centuries the divine right of kings was a given – to question it was treason, and (very painful) death. Now we still have ‘royalty’, their power often diminished to tokenistic roles, but the creaking institution of monarchy continues. Henry Tudor is a portrait of a man with too much power, whose every capricious whim must be indulged – whose changing moods assail the nation he rules like a tempest. All of his ills are projected onto demonised enemies. Those in favour one week, find themselves anathema the next. Any institution in his way is dismantled. All is fuel to his pyre. In this respect Mantel’s Henry is a portrait with topical resonance. There are many demagogues and tyrants around the world but one in particular stands out. Mantel clearly didn’t write the trilogy as a critique of Trump, but it is hard not to draw a comparison – reading chapters in tandem with seeing the latest insane tweet or briefing from the American president shared all over the news and social media. It is a portrait of how not to be a king, of a kind of anti-sovereignty. Henry Tudor was not a great ruler, because he could not even rule himself. Born to ‘rule’, he is like the classic spoilt child who is never given firm boundaries. Nobody tells Henry what to do. It is ironic that his brother Arthur died young – symbolic in a way of a true portrait of sovereignty, King Arthur: the legendary king of Britain and the epitome of everything Henry was not. In truth, any leader will project our hopes and expectations onto will eventually disappoint. The real sovereignty is found within. Thomas Cromwell, the self-mastered man, found it – and I suspect that is what worried Henry more than anything. His talented servant was more kingly than he ever could dream to be. And Cromwell rose, through his own remarkable merits, to be the most powerful man in England. But of course alpha males cannot accept any competition. And so off with his head.
Although Mantel’s searing portrait of Henry VIII is a masterclass in toxic masculinity, the Wolf Hall Trilogy in its entirety offers many positive portraits of maleness – indeed, although the female characters are significant and often sympathetically wrought (although just as flawed and conflicted as the men), it is the men who dominate the proceedings in almost every way conceivable. The author delights in the company of her male characters and her best dialogue is often in their (private) company – in the intimate exchanges between friends, allies, and rivals behind closed doors. Cromwell’s coterie is lit up by the sparky exchanges between the bright wits and strong personalities of Rafe Sadler, Richard Riche, Gregory his son, Richard his nephew, Christophe, and Call-me-Wriothesley. There is an electrifying jousting of intellect, strategy, and diplomacy between Cromwell and Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador of Spain – one of the most touching friendships in the series (perhaps Cromwell’s only true equal or kindred spirit). Then there are the posturing and jockeying men of the Court – Charles Brandon, Norfolk, Thomas Wyatt; men of the cloth – Stephen Gardiner, Cranmer, Barnes, Cardinal Wolsey (Cromwell’s mentor and a ghostly presence in the last novel), Thomas More (gone but not forgotten); and then the various fathers and brothers, pushing their daughters and sisters forward under the King’s eye, into his bed, hoping for elevation of status. Cromwell is a great patron of the gutternsnipe, the chancer, the cocky lad, and the underdog. He ‘fathers’ them all, and in his way is a good a husband and father as circumstances would allow – until tragedy strikes. The appearance of an unexpected daughter shakes his world – and sense of self-worth – to its foundations. He cannot help but feel a failure, despite all his many triumphs. And yet it is because of this fallibility that we get a rounded, realistic, and affirming portrait of masculinity. Cromwell is far from perfect, but he is a whole man. Over nearly two thousand pages Mantel limns in minutiae the consciousness of a single human being to a dizzying degree, reclaimed and rehabilitated from history.
Finally, the Wolf Hall Trilogy explores various notions of hierarchy, of hegemonic power structures. These are ultimately what did for Cromwell. In the eyes of the aristocracy he could never quite shake the mud from his boots. Not that he tried to deny his humble origins. Indeed he wears it sometimes as a badge of honour. He is more in touch with the people than the court, certainly than the king. He experiences the full gamut of society. He rises from the open midden of Putney – his face pressed to the cobbles by his father’s boot – to the highest offices in the land. He accrues great wealth, land, titles, and power – but he never ‘lords’ it over anyone; he certainly doesn’t seem to abuse his power. Undoubtedly he had an excellent head for business and prospered accordingly, but one senses this isn’t what was motivating him. Cromwell did not seek to better himself for that reason – but for his own personal development perhaps. To see how far a man could go. And yet his extraordinary progress was ‘vaulting ambition’ to his enemies. The status quo, which maintained the power and wealth in the hands of the few, felt threatened by such advancement. If one commoner could rise so far – then, heaven forfend, others could as well. And that was the one crime the Tudor elite could to countenance. The multiple homicides of Henry VIII and the daily horrors of religious persecution, capital punishment, and extreme poverty, were acceptable. But not social mobility. Cromwell begins the trilogy being brutalised by his father, the thuggish Walter – and ends being crushed by his surrogate ‘bad father’: Henry Tudor. Throughout his time serving the king Cromwell is forced to endure continual threat of execution, unexpected punishment, passive aggression, mockery, and ingratitude. It could be argued that he ‘acts out’ his relationship with his father through his relationship with his king, to whom he becomes a whipping boy, however ‘favoured’. Cromwell is constantly reminded of his place in the pecking order – he is not born into privilege or power or wealth. Henry’s fool, Patch, rudely reminds Cromwell of this – in front of the whole court. When this no longer serves to put the Putney boy, nicknamed ‘Put-an-edge-on-it’, in his place, the machinery of the system grinds inexorably towards its doom: the reaper in the clock, present from the first page, can wait no longer to administer the coup-de-grace.
Ultimately, The Wolf Hall Trilogy offers an unflinching and deeply perceptive insight into human nature. Mantel’s Cromwell is a masterful instauration of one of history’s unflattering characters: Holbein’s ‘heavy’ turns out to be the prototype Rennaissance man. In its scintillating language, its glittering rhetoric, elegant statecraft, profound historicity, and life-affirming connoisseurship of civilisation it is a counterblast to the endemic vilification of the intellectual, the liberal, and the nuanced we face today in public discourse. It is a message in a bottle from four hundred years ago (via a 21st Century mind) of our rare and precious humanity. All that our mercurial human nature is capable of – the very worst and the very best.
© Kevan Manwaring 19 May 2020
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2020)