Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Book Review by Bud Gundy

Anne Boleyn, like Marie Antionette, was innocent.  If anyone was guilty, it was King Henry VIII.  He was guilty of a childlike temper, immense vanity and a singular inability to see the world from anyone’s perspective but his own.

The Tudor court still fascinates after nearly 500 years.  In half a millennium, hardly any royal court has inspired more speculation and unease, if only because it is such a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the monarchy.

In her latest book, the second in her Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, the loyal royal aide who helped dispatch Katharine of Aragon and set three subsequent queens on the English throne.

Born a fighter and a scraper, Cromwell found himself Secretary to the king, an amorphous position that we are left to conclude simply meant, “the guy who gets things done.”  And done he gets things.

As this story picks up from the last book, Henry and Anne’s marriage has been a disaster.  Although Henry shattered the religious foundations of Europe to get rid of Katherine and wed Anne (by forcibly breaking England from the Roman Catholic faith) the couple did not prosper.  Anne’s sole successful pregnancy resulted in Elizabeth, the unfortunate child who would go on to become one of the world’s most legendary and brilliant monarchs. 

But Henry’s purpose in shunting Katharine to the side was to have sons.  Anne, being young and vivacious, offered him every hope of feverish love and many sons.  Roughly halfway through this volume, Anne’s latest pregnancy holds England in suspense.  A boy will smooth the roughness of their marriage.  A boy will give Henry an heir, and everything will change, but not necessarily for the better for those who hold to Catholicism and despise Anne.  Everyone calculates at every turn and Cromwell is usually there to observe.

But Anne miscarries on the very day of Katherine’s burial, an ominous omen for everyone.  The old queen was loved and admired by the common man, whereas Anne was distrusted.  And though Mantel does not get specific, it seems this latest miscarriage (the fetus was male) turns Henry away for the final time.

Anne was no saint.  She was overbearing, imperious and reckless.  But aren’t these also the signs of desperate fear?  Don’t they underscore that Anne had begun to realize that the king was her sole source of power, that his displeasure could mean her ruin?  Perhaps she realized this too late, after nearly three years of an unhappy match, and thus three years of indulging her tantrums.  When the king was through with her, there was nobody else to offer support.

Cromwell glides through the story, always following one step behind the king’s motives, but also one step forward in the execution of his desires.  This requires some hopping about, but Cromwell turns what could be an awkward display into a nimble dance of diplomacy and threats.

As I said, I doubt that Anne was guilty of adultery and incest, treasonous crimes in a queen who could give birth to children who would inherit the throne.  Actions that are wholly innocent in one perspective are warped in another so that even an innocent Christmas party, shadowed by the nervous tension between the king and queen, becomes a traitorous debauch.  And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Anne and Marie Antionette were accused of incest (Anne with her brother, Marie with her son) so that the shock of the charge would stain their reputations beyond repair, for who would accuse a queen of such monstrous immorality without merit?

Henry, that’s who.  The idea did not originate with him, but one word from him would have silenced such slander.  The word never came.  Henry was a weak man, his passivity and despair masking his laziness.  The ease with which his subjects eagerly provided him with reasons for doing what he so clearly wanted does not absolve Henry of responsibility.  In fact, it is an indictment of his courage.

Cromwell, however, has his own motives for agreeing to pretend these ridiculous charges are true, and in a breathtaking sequence, we see him talk to Anne’s accused lovers while they await what they already know will be a guilty verdict and their executions.  It is a mark of Mantel’s skill as a writer that although all the men are clearly innocent, and Cromwell clearly knows it, you end feeling almost no pity for these men all while your admiration for Thomas grows.

There is much to admire about Thomas Cromwell.  Mantel brings him to life in a vivid, technicolor way.  Here he is counseling the king’s bastard son with a wise course of action to satisfy his lust, and there he is telling his own son how to improve his standing at the court.  Then you see Cromwell fighting for the dignity of the common man, and afterwards he is nimbly manipulating ambassadors by acts of kindness, which are apparently a rare thing in Tudor England.  You wonder how such a man can participate in such wanton cruelty and the scenes of Anne’s trial and execution are painful to read.  Why does Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant and humane man, agree to do these things?

And then the answer comes: he cannot choose his king.  In the court of Henry VIII, where favor alights in strange places and downfalls come swiftly, the only sensible thing to do is survive.