Funny how, following the popularity of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell and their TV and stage dramatisations, the religious wars of the 16th century are being fought all over again. As one with no sectarian axe to grind and having enjoyed a secular education in Tudor history, it’s all rather bemusing.
For example, in Holbein: Eye of the Tudors, shown on BBC 4 in January, Waldermar Januszczak suddenly went off on one, arguing that Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell is an accurate representation of a man who had ‘a hard and charmless presence’. ‘Look’, said Januszczak, ‘at those piggy eyes, that blank expression: Cromwell is surely the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein’s art.’ Then he recalled his own Catholic education: Continue reading “Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII”→
In the period of enforced idleness brought about by a broken ankle, I’ve been reading Bring Up The Bodies, the second part of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy tracking the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s that began with Wolf Hall.
Short digression: This is the first book that I’ve read using Kindle on a tablet. 21st century though that may be, ‘tablet’ is a word that Cromwell would have recognised, for its function if not the technology. The OED lists one definition of ‘tablet’ as ‘a small, smooth, inflexible sheet for writing upon’ and offers several examples of this usage from near to Cromwell’s time:
This tablet lay upon his breast, wherein, our pleasure, his full fortune doth confine. (Shakespeare – Cymbeline, 1681)
Had I not kept memorandums in my tablet, I could not possibly give any account of our proceedings. (Mme Darblay, Diary, 1780)
Anyway, back to Mantel. Where she left us – at the end of Wolf Hall – Thomas Cromwell had freed Henry from his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, engineered his union with Anne Boleyn by breaking from Rome, and had Thomas More executed. The book concludes in the late summer of 1535, with Cromwell, the king and his attendants stopping off at Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, the seat of the family of Jane Seymour, ‘a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise’.
And this is where the second book begins, with Cromwell flying his hawks, named after his dead daughters. ‘His children are falling from the sky’, are the opening words. ‘He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze … All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment’.
We are back where we were in Wolf Hall – inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell, this man who is firmly committed to forging a new England. Methodical, organised and capable, his past nevertheless seeps in when he’s least expecting it. There are moments when he’s beset by the ghosts of his own pain and loss, especially those of his wife, Liz, and daughters Anne and Grace, carried off in Wolf Hall by the sweating sickness, and by the death of his former employer, Cardinal Wolsey.
‘What I was trying to do,’ Mantel explained in an interview with the Telegraph, ‘is recreate the process by which memory does overtake us. In novels, people stop and ‘have a memory’ – but that’s not how it works in life. It’s some sensory trigger that sparks the memory off’. Where historical novels can often fall short, Mantel said, is in the creation of interiority.
Characterisation can often be complex but not deep, and I wanted to do something different in these books. I did want to get some sense of the narrative growing from the inside, and of us being behind Cromwell’s eyes – the idea of how a memory interpenetrates the events of today is really part of that.
We are inside the mind of this calculating man: seeing with Cromwell’s eyes, hearing with his ears, increasingly aware that, despite his manoeuvrings, he is advancing with imperfect information and perhaps wrong expectations, moving forward into a future that is not predetermined,and where the risks are great. I baulked at the technique Mantel adopts here, identifying Cromwell’s actions and speech in company with the words, ‘He, Cromwell’. But, after a while it ceased to be an irritant.
Cromwell is surrounded by men of noble birth or Catholic leanings (often both) who, if they could, would destroy him:
Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood. At home in his city house at Austin Friars, his portrait broods on the wall; he is wrapped in wool and fur, his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it. When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer.’
There are noblemen who despise his religion and suspect his works; most of all, though, they sneer at his origins:
How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen’s family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier a wool trader a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and 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.
Mantel’s style – which raises these books so far above most historical novels – creates the sensation of reading a dream. Small moments are acutely observed, and vivid scene segue into one another, frequently shifting to a different location or a different set of characters with little explanation. It’s an austere technique, never filling out for the reader, as a lesser novelist might, what a room, a street or a building looks like, and only describing the clothes someone is wearing when it has some significance.
In a piece for The Guardian about her appearance at last year’s Edinburgh book festival, Hilary Mantel illustrated her technique by referring to a scene, early in Bring Up the Bodies, in which Cromwell, from a window, watches Jane Seymour walking with Henry in the garden of Wolf Hall.
Cromwell does not realise it, but the king is falling in love. Cromwell regards them through ‘the wobble in the glass’ – the uneven Tudor glazing of the window. At times he cannot see precisely what is going on; nor can he hear them. This scene, said Mantel, is a hint about the nature of the book. ‘People are in your sightline one minute and then they bob out of it. And then there’s the wobble in the glass, and you have to change your position to try to follow them’.
It’s at Wolf Hall that Cromwell first recognises the king’s desire for Jane. He sees how rumours spread about Anne can be used, as he puts it, to ‘separate her from history’ and get rid of her. And he sees how he can use her fall to punish four men, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and George Boleyn (Anne’s brother), who six years before performed in a masque at court in which they mocked the fall of Cromwell’s master, Cardinal Wolsey. Interrogated later, Norris protests, ‘It was a play. It was an entertainment.’ In this world, though, there is no such thing.
So the ensuing story is one of Cromwellian revenge, secured by Cromwellian political adeptness. As Cromwell maintains: ‘I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations’. Other novelists might have made their focus the romantic element – the King, the Queen and the Lady – but Mantel unfolds the story through the eyes and thoughts of Cromwell alone. This does raise the question as to whether her account of the man is a little to sympathetic.
I remember almost falling in love with the man when I studied the period for A-level History back in the early sixties when Geoffrey Elton’s England under the Tudors was the key text, having dramatically shaken up perspectives on 16th century English government. Elton argued that Thomas Cromwell was the author of modern, law-based government which replaced medieval, household government. By steering through the legislation that made lawful Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn lawful, the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, Elton argued that Cromwell laid the foundations of England’s future stability and adherence to constitutional government.
There are some striking passages in Bring Up The Bodies in which Mantel dramatises this view of Cromwell, giving rise to the thought that Mantel may be, ever so slyly, suggesting that the 21st century reader might look around themselves at their own society. This is here account of Cromwell’s musings at what closing down the monasteries might yield:
England needs better roads, and bridges that don’t collapse. He is preparing a bill for Parliament to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist. We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would all have the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat. What if their fathers before them were bawds, pickpockets or highway robbers? That signifies nothing. Look at him. Is he Walter Cromwell? In a generation everything can change.
As for the monks, he believes, like Martin Luther, that the monastic life is not necessary, not useful, not commanded of Christ, There’s nothing perishable about monasteries. They’re not part of God’s natural order. They rise and decay like any other institutions…
In another passage, Cromwell muses on how busy he has been, dealing with matters other than the problem of the royal succession:
In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field. England needs roads, forts, harbours, bridges. Men need work. It’s a shame to see them begging their bread when honest labour could keep the realm secure. Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?
But Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order? To everything there is a season: a time to starve and a time to thieve. If rain falls for six months solid and rots the grain in the fields, there must be providence in it; for God knows his trade. It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy. And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality: well, are there not hangmen enough?
Mantel is true to history here, in the sense that the historical records reveal the nature of the reforms which Cromwell was presenting to Parliament at this time. But the question must remain: what kind of a man, really, was Thomas Cromwell? Reviewing Bring Up The Bodies for the London Review of Books, Colin Burrow wrote:
Cromwell is central to all this. When I reviewed Wolf Hall I said, roughly, that it represented this greatest of all the many great bastards in the 16th century as far too nice. Cromwell’s excess of sensitivity, indeed his Whiggish modernity of consciousness, is still there in Bring Up the Bodies, where he is, around the edges of all his plots, attempting to introduce income tax and a single system of law that might be fair for all, as well as working on a bill to protect orphans. He also repeatedly remembers his past experiences of the high points of Italian art. Cromwell was indeed a reformer, and did use his control over legal and parliamentary process to address larger problems in the commonwealth. But the crude question ‘Does this mean that he could have felt as much and as finely as he does in this book?’ still needs to be asked. The novel’s present-tense mode of narrative, focalised through a single principal character, has an intrinsic problem. It would be almost impossible to write this kind of fiction and make the central character a brute, since so much depends on what he or she notices and feels, on sensitivity.
Margaret Atwood reviewing the novel in The Guardian made an even more dramatic comparison:
Cromwell rose from obscure and violent origins through a life abroad – sometime soldier, sometime merchant – to become England’s top go-to man, the prime maker-and-breaker of fortunes and spines, secretly hated and despised, especially by aristocrats. He played Beria to Henry VIII’s tyrannical Stalin: he did the dirty work and attended the beheadings, while Henry went hunting.
Of course, Mantel is sophisticated enough as a novelist to avoid presenting a one-sided portrait of Cromwell. There are hints throughout of his ruthlessness, and suggestions that, though his own hands may be clean, there are bloody deeds which he has had others carry out. ‘If he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon’, someone says of him at one point; and, of the men that rumours say have been Anne Boleyn’s lovers, Cromwell thinks to himself, ‘I have probably gone as far as I can to accommodate them. Now, they must accommodate me or be removed’.
In the London Review of Books article, Colin Burrow suggested that Mantel’s hints and allusions ‘require you to see him as a kind of psychopath who has things done which he can’t bring himself to think about, who wants to keep his worst actions beyond the edges of his own consciousness while he tries to think of himself as the person who attempts to persuade the rich to take some legal responsibility for the poor, and who does a series of terrible things for the ultimate good of more than himself’.
At the start of Bring Up the Bodies ‘the falcon of Anne Boleyn is crudely painted up on hatchments’, replacing the pomegranates of Katherine of Aragon. At the end, Anne Boleyn’s fall is marked by similar, economical, symbols of the order changing: the heraldic lions of the dead Boleyn are replaced by the panthers of Jane Seymour – they only only need new heads and tails. Henry gives Jane Seymour a prayer book which had belonged first to Katherine of Aragon, and then to Anne Boleyn.
What this is all about, of course, is medieval politics of the most serious kind. For almost thirty years of his reign, Henry was consumed by his need for a male heir. Religious and political activity all drew inexorably to this issue. It was not until his third marriage that Henry had a son who lived. His daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, continued the Tudor line, despite Henry’s fear that his bloodline would end. But, Elizabeth never married, and she was indeed the last of the Tudors. The line did end: just a lot later than Henry had imagined.
In the meantime, Cromwell is charged with doing something about the problem. Events move inexorably towards their conclusion, with Henry ordering an especially adept executioner from France to perform Anne’s execution quickly and efficiently. The narrative builds steadily towards the final scenes of trial and execution. The French executioner’s sword flashes and ‘the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.’
Cromwell is philosophical: ‘She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive … If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself … waiting for the coarse English axe’. For the time being, Cromwell’s skilful moves mean that he has won. He has removed his former allies the Boleyns, and is left trying to make alliances with the unreliable Seymours. Meanwhile others threatens him from the wings. But Bring Up the Bodies is not just a revenge tragedy in which Cromwell manoeuvres to their death those who stand in the way of his master the King’s desires. It also sets up the outlines of another tragedy, that of Cromwell himself:
During daylight hours he thinks only of the future, but sometimes late at night memory comes to nag him. However. His next task is somehow to reconcile the king and the Lady Mary, to save Henry from killing his own daughter; and before that, to stop Mary’s friends from killing him. He has helped them to their new world, the world without Anne Boleyn, and now they will think they can do without Cromwell too.
The novel ends with the statement: ‘There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.’
If you have read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall you’ll remember Ralph Sadler, the young lad taken into the household of Thomas Cromwell. Under Cromwell’s patronage, Sadler entered royal service in 1518, at the tender age of 11. Cromwell’s skills and efficiency in governmental matters – and especially in facilitating Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon – meant that he, Cromwell, rose fast in the king’s administration, and Ralph Sadler rose with him, eventually to become Principal Secretary of State to Henry VIII.
The house that Ralph Sadler built as a rich and successful courtier still stands: a Tudor mansion tucked away in a busy corner of Hackney, a place described at the time as having ‘green fields and clean air’. After passing through many hands and serving many purposes in the past four and a half centuries, it’s owned and maintained now by the National Trust. We went to see it on a day of incessant rain last week.
Now the oldest domestic building in East London, the house was erected in 1535 and was originally known as Bryk Place because, unusually for those times, it was built entirely of brick, rather than the more common construction from timber beams interlaced with wattle and daub. While writing Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel went to see Ralph Sadler’s house, and down in the cellar she came across original Tudor bricks, one of which she noticed bore the imprint of a dog’s paw. When the bricks were made and then laid out to dry, some unknown mutt had run across them. The sight moved her. As someone wrote: ‘Most of us would simply see a paw print; Mantel heard the dog, smelt it, felt its coat under her fingers, and watched as it loped away down a muddy country lane in Hackney’.
I didn’t see any paw prints down in the cellar, and we both agreed that you had to work hard to feel a sense of the Tudor past, since the house has been pulled apart and shoved around many times since. It would be easier if you possessed Mantel’s imaginative powers.
In the early 16th century Hackney was a prosperous village, less than three miles across open fields from Bishopsgate in the City. The centre of the village lay around Church Street (now Mare Street, where we left the 82 bus) with the medieval church of St Augustine at its heart. There were also a number of hamlets nearby, like Humberton (Homerton) and Clapton. Between these various settlements were meadows and pastures, dotted with farms and market gardens that supplied London. Hackney was free of plague and close to the City and the court, so it was popular with noblemen and rich merchants for their principal homes, or country retreats.
The house only acquired its current name in 1953, in the belief that it had been the house that Sir Thomas Sutton, the philanthropist and founder of Charterhouse School. This was in fact the house next door, which was demolished in 1805 to allow for the extension of Sutton Place, a Grade II listed terrace of Georgian houses that you walk down after crossing the churchyard gardens. The house has had many other names in its time, reflecting the fact that, down the years, it has been home to wool and silk merchants, Huguenots, schoolmasters, trade unionists and squatters.
As Cromwell’s secretary Ralph was able and hardworking; a contemporary called him a ‘diligent and a trusty servant’ and by his own admission he was a workaholic accustomed to rising at four in the morning, impatient to start the day. By 1532 Henry VIII had noticed Ralph’s energy and talent and he was taken into the King’s service. Cromwell was by then the King’s chief minister.
Soon Ralph himself is directly in Henry’s service and undertakes delicate diplomatic negotiations in France and Scotland and duties in connection with the dissolution of the monasteries. Increasingly prosperous, Sadler had Bryk Place built for his bride, Ellen Barre. She was a servant and, she thought, a widow, but in a curious story that echoes old ballads, her first husband came back from the dead eleven years later, much to the couple’s dismay. Unbeknown to everyone, Matthew Barre had been alive somewhere abroad. Ralph and Ellen now had seven children, and Ralph was a wealthy and influential man at court whose reputation was at stake. Sadler was obliged to have his children legitimized by a private Act of Parliament which set aside Ellen’s marriage to Matthew Barre and made her marriage to Ralph Sadler a true and proper union. Sadler managed to prevent the publication of the Act and its details never appeared with the statutes of the period.
In 1540, Sadler was knighted and appointed Principal Secretary of State, but later that year when his friend and mentor Thomas Cromwell fell, armed men arrived at Bryk Place to march Sadler to the Tower, where he spent several days accused of treason before being released. Sadler took a great risk in pleading for Cromwell’s life by writing a letter to Henry, the last three words of which read, ‘mercy,mercy,mercy’. Henry was apparently ‘much moved’ by the letter and asked Sadler to read it three times.However, Sadler’s intervention ultimately failed: within a month Cromwell had been executed by an inexperienced executioner using a blunt axe.
Ralph Sadler was still working at the age of 79 as a member of the council that sentenced Mary Queen of Scots to death. He outlived everyone of his generation, and died the richest commoner in England.
The first room you enter in Sadler’s former home is the Linenfold Parlour. In Tudor times this room would probably have been used by Sadler for conducting his business. Given that he was a senior courtier, many secret conversations and delicate negotiations might have taken place here. The room is so named because the wall panels were carved to look like draped cloth. Wood panelling was popular in Tudor times, but it was a luxury item and expensive to make. When people moved house they took their panelling with them, along with the glass from their windows and wall hangings. When first installed the panelling would have been painted in bright colours.
The next room is The Little Chamber, probably used by the lady ofthe house as a bedroom and also to entertain friends and educate her children. Ralph and Ellen had nine children, seven of whom – four girls and three boys – survived infancy. Ellen also had two girls from her former marriage. The original entrance to the Little Chamber was by a steep, narrow stairway leading up from the Linenfold Parlour below. In the early 17th century the owner of the house, Captain Milward, a wealthy silk merchant, blocked it up and cut a door through to his new painted staircase. The oak panelling on three of the walls dates from the late 16th century and might have originally been painted red. It was Captain Milward, keen to show off his wealth, who commissioned the fluted panelling above and either side of the fireplace. He furnished the house with silk carpets brought from the Far East. Later, a collapse in silk prices in 1639, due to the increase in cotton production in America, resulted in the failure of his business and he had to sell Sutton House.
The Great Chamber is an imposing room. In Tudor times banquets were held here, important guests would be invited upstairs to the Great Chamber, where they would be served with sweetmeats and other delicacies made from expensive, imported sugar. The oak panelling on the walls dates from around 161o. This was a costly feature and only used in the most important rooms. At the end of the room are paintings that date from the Stuart period. There’s s a single portrait of Sir Ralph Sadler of Standon, grandson of Ralph Sadler (glimpsed in the second photo below). On the opposite wall are two portraits – of Sir Edwin Sadler, another of Ralph’s descendants, and his wife, both painted in 1687.
The Great Chamber served as an assembly room during the several periods when Sutton House was used as a school. The longest period when there was a school here was from 1657 to 1741, when the house accommodated Mrs Freeman’s girls’ school. More recently, when the house was owned by the St John’s Church Institute in the early 1900s, this was a billiard room.
Another room on the first floor, which may have served as Ralph Sadler’s bedroom, is now presented as a Victorian study. There’s a reminder of its time as a bedroom in the garderobe (lavatory) which is just off to one side. In the 16th century it was thought that if you hung your clothes over the toilet, you would rid them of moths and other annoyances – hence garderobe.
Back on the ground floor, there’s the original Tudor kitchen. Later, the kitchen was moved elsewhere and this room served a variety of other functions.
Down in the cellar you can see the the foundations of the house, with its original Tudor brickwork. Surprisingly, it was converted to a chapel in 1914 – from 1891 to 1939, Sutton House was home to the St John at Hackney Church Institute which aimed ‘to promote the spiritual, mental, social and physical welfare of young men’. The National Trust now present the room set out as if it were a chapel.
By the time I first visited it early in 1987, this surviving fragment of the ancient hamlet of Hackney seemed to be at the end of its days. The makeshift sheds of a troublesome looking car mechanic were built right up against its west wall; the Georgian front was boarded up, and a passing vandal with a spray can had added humiliation to the injury of the peeling notice announcing that the building had come to the National Trust through the benevolence of one WA Robertson, who had made his gift in the memory of two brothers killed in the Great War. Recent repairs to upstairs windows and brickwork only added to the sense of dereliction; although carried out by the National Trust, they made Hackney DIY look positively refined. Inside, the story was far worse. The enclosed courtyard was full of junk. Damp and rot were creeping through the structure. Ancient fireplaces had been stolen or shattered and left lying around in pieces. The linenfold panelling had also disappeared. Thieves had ripped it out of the empty building a year or so earlier and sold it for £l per foot to the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company in Shoreditch, the proprietors of which recognised its exceptional rarity and saw that it was returned to the National Trust.
That was how Patrick Wright, journalist, author and sometime resident of Hackney, described Sutton House in his book, A Journey through Ruins in 1991. How had it got to that state? The house had been bought by the National Trust in 1938, leased first to St John’s Church Institute, and then from the 1960s it was rented by the ASTMS union, in the period when its general secretary was Clive Jenkins. When the union left in the early 1980s, the house fell into disrepair and for a time was home to squatters, who called it the Blue House. Eventually, in 1990, the National Trust started the restoration that has resulted in the building as it is today.
Leaving Sutton House, we walked back to the bus stop – the rain still pouring down – through St John at Hackney Churchyard Gardens, the site of Hackney’s old church of St Augustine’s that dates back to at least 1275. It’s been a burial ground for over 500 years and the medieval tower of the old church still stands there.
Like Sutton House, by the 1990s the Churchyard was in a near-derelict condition, being used as a dumping ground for rubbish and even unwanted cars. Now, a programme of restoration and enhancement of the site celebrates the Churchyard’s past and has provided a public space that is quiet and pleasant to walk in. Among the many tombs and memorials to people buried here, I found this one for Fred Peters, who died in the 1930s. Known locally as ‘Blind Fred’ he is memorialised in a small plaque in the churchyard where he sold matches for many years. His memorial records him as a ‘Sunny Soul’ and includes a Braille inscription from the Bible: ‘And this I know, where once I was blind, now I see.’
I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. I was drawn to this book having studied the period for A-level History back in the early sixties, when Geoffrey Elton’s England under the Tudors was the key text, having dramatically shaken up perspectives on 16th century English government.
Elton argued that Thomas Cromwell was the author of modern, bureaucratic government which replaced medieval, household government. This change took place in the 1530s when Cromwell was Henry VIII’s chief minister (1532 to 1540), introducing reforms to legitimise Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, his break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. In the process he radically altered the role of Parliament and instituted the supremacy of statute law. By steering through these reforms, Elton argued that Cromwell laid the foundations of England’s future stability and success.
Reading Wolf Hall, you realise that Hilary Mantel has done extensive research into the period, and has adopted Elton’s interpretation (now, apparently challenged by other historians) as the basis of her portrayal of Cromwell. However, the novel carries the weight of historical background lightly, with a present-tense narration that takes you inside Cromwell’s head. At times this lends the novel a dreamlike character, particularly in the sections in which Cromwell’s past is unfolded in flashbacks.
Mantel’s portrayal of the blacksmith’s son from Putney who can ‘draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury’ is one of a new kind of man, curious, intellectually open, pragmatic, frustrated by pointless acts of violence or inhumane punishment – yet also resolute, unbending, ambitious. He is a man who reads Machiavelli and recognises that times are changing – things will no longer run from castle walls and the King’s personal household, but from counting houses, ministries and parliaments.
Opposed to him is Thomas More: portrayed fanatical, snobbish, cold. In Cromwell’s household the children are educated but never whipped, and his wife he treats as an equal. More, conversely, humiliates his family. Cromwell, who, as a brilliant flashback reveals, witnessed as a child the burning of a Lollard, has sympathy for Tyndale’s followers – can’t understand why ordinary men and women should not be allowed to read the Bible in their own tongue – while More turns the rack himself when persecuting heretics. More wants utopia; Cromwell works with the world as it is – to change it, ‘Inch by inch. Inch by inch forward’. He is a reformer, but not a zealot. Steering a course between the fanaticism of More and Munster, seized by Anabaptist fanatics.
There’s a wonderful description of Cromwell, put by Mantel into the mouth of Thomas More: ‘lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money’. The novel has much of this dry humour; here’s another example:
‘Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are roasting live babies on spits. Oh, he would! says Thomas Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy carrying away everything they can to turn into ready money.’
Mantel deftly evokes the sense of a world that is changing. Books are sources of new knowledge and new ideas about religion, politics and the individual’s place in the world:
‘After they get up from the table his guest eat ginger comfits and candied fruits, and Kratzer makes some drawings. He draws the sun and the planets moving in their orbits according to the plan he has heard of from Father Copernicus. He shows how the world is turning on its axis, and nobody in the room denies it. Under your feet you can feel the tug and heft of it, the rocks groaning to tear away from their beds, the oceans tilting and slapping at their shores, the giddy lurch of Alpine passes, the forests of Germany ripping at their roots to be free. The world is not what it was when he and Vaughan were young, it is not what it was even in the cardinal’s day.’
Mirrors also enable the individual to see themselves in the world, which is why, as Cromwell says, Savonarola urged the Florentines to throw them on the pyre:
‘And do you know what was worst…they threw in their mirrors. So then they couldn’t see their faces and know they were different from the beasts in the field…’
I think Mantel sometimes invites us to draw parallels with our own times and the huge implications of the development of the Internet for the spread of knowledge and opinions. Cromwell is deeply interested in, indeed attempts negotiations to obtain, Giulio Camillo’s ‘Memory Theatre’ which Camillo is developing for the King of France. Entering this creation, a person would be able to absorb the sum total of human knowledge. Google anyone?
I’ve illustrated this post with Hans Holbein’s portraits of key figures in the novel. The portrait is yet another example of the change in conciousness that was occurring, and Holbein appears in the novel, most notably in this passage describing the completion of his portrait of Cromwell:
When Hans brings the finished portrait to Austin Friars he feels shy of it. He remembers when Walter would say, look me in the face, boy, when you tell me a lie. He looks at the picture’s lower edge, and allows his gaze to creep upwards. A quill, scissors, papers, his seal in a little bag, and a heavy volume, bound in blackish green: the leather tooled in gold, the pages gilt-edged. Hans had asked to see his Bible, rejected it as too plain, too thumbed. He had scoured the house and found the finest volume he owned on the desk of Thomas Avery. It is the monk Pacioli’s work, the book on how to keep your books, sent to him by his kind friends in Venice. He sees his painted hand, resting on the desk before him, holding a paper in a loose fist. It is uncanny, as if he had been pulled apart, to look at himself in sections, digit by digit. Hans has made his skin smooth as the skin of a courtesan, but the motion he has captured, that folding of the fingers, is as sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife. He is wearing the cardinal’s turquoise. […]
He wears his winter clothes. Inside them, he seems made of a more impermeable substance than most men, more compacted. He could well be wearing armour. He foresees the day when he might have to. .. The king had said, what are you made of? He smiles. There is no trace of a smile on the face of his painted self. When Gregory comes home from Canterbury, he takes him in alone to see the painting, still in his riding coat, muddy from the road; he wants to hear his son’s opinion, before the rest of the household get to him. He says, ‘Your lady mother always said she didn’t pick me for my looks. I was surprised, when the picture came, to find I was vain. I thought of myself as I was when I left Italy, twenty years ago. Before you were born.’ Gregory stands at his shoulder. His eyes rest on the portrait. He doesn’t speak. […]
He turns to the painting. ‘I fear Mark was right.’
‘Who is Mark?’
‘A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’