A Man for our Season

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is a dazzling exercise in literary ventriloquism, but it panders too much to modern sensibilities, painting Thomas Cromwell as a secular saint

Books Literature
Mantel's puppet: The King's chief minister Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

In what is now known as a “publishing event”,  the hardback release of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, sequel to the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize Wolf Hall, has generated much excitement among the book-buying British public. Many readers had circled the date on their calendars well in advance of May 10, when Bring Up The Bodies hit the shelves. 

Wolf Hall has been extraordinarily successful both in terms of sales and critical acclaim, perhaps surprisingly so given that its subject matter, the career of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, was thought by some to be too highbrow for bestseller material. The naysayers surely reckoned without Mantel’s treatment of Cromwell’s story, which transforms the Tudor mind, taking it out of the remote past and making it accessible to the modern reader. Mantel’s Cromwell lives through the page in a compelling feat of literary ventriloquism and imaginative projection: this Cromwell has proved a surefire hit.

Bring Up The Bodies continues where Wolf Hall left off, with Henry VIII having secured his marriage to Anne Boleyn but already noticing other ladies at court, in particular the demure Jane Seymour. With Anne having failed to give him a male heir, and with her political ambition already grating at court, Henry is looking for a way out of a marriage that Thomas Cromwell worked so hard to secure.

Few do not know the story of Henry VIII’s famous scruples: having married his brother’s wife it took Henry 20 years of married life before his conscience began to trouble him. Was it incest, he wondered, to marry his sister-in-law? A papal dispensation said otherwise. Katherine of Aragon herself said otherwise, asserting to the end that she and Prince Arthur had never consummated their union therefore Henry was her true husband, in law and before God. But Katherine had not borne him the living male heir which Henry wanted to secure the Tudor dynasty, and Henry’s eyes were wandering to younger women who might prove more fertile, and malleable.

For all his scruples about incest, it did not strike Henry as relevant that with Anne Boleyn he was falling into the same trap of incestuous relations. Anne’s sister Mary had long been his concubine and, if rumour is to be believed, so was their mother when Henry was in his teens. Mantel uses Wolf Hall, the Seymour family seat, to signify incest and licence, even though it only appears as a location within the last few pages of Wolf Hall. Its name works in the novel as a byword for licence: news reached the Tudor court that old Sir John Seymour had been caught in flagrante with his daughter-in-law, a liaison which had been going on behind his eldest son’s back for years.

Though she hails from Wolf Hall, Jane is set up as a model of purity and chastity; the antithesis of Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up The Bodies, Jane offers Wolf Hall, and the corrupt Tudor court it stands for, a redemption of sorts. Only she can resurrect her family’s fortunes, salve Henry’s broken family relationships, and seek to heal rifts caused by the vexed issue of the Protestant Reformation.

Bring Up The Bodies maintains Cromwell’s point of view and distinctive narrative voice established in Wolf Hall. Figures at court make slow elliptical movements around him, coming into his orbit and out again, while he documents all. He observes groupings and regroupings; who is protected and who exposed by these manoeuvres and courtly dances? Anne is left exposed, unable to read the prevailing mood at court and deserted by her powerful uncle and father. Jane is encircled by her male relatives, a position which allows her to make guileful yet guarded remarks in safety. Those on the periphery come to Cromwell: with what they tell him, he can orchestrate events and make planets spin. His every move must be precise, swift, and leave no room for error.

Having backed the Boleyn family in order to further the Protestant cause, Cromwell switches allegiance to the Seymours in order to serve the Cromwell cause. In supporting Wolf Hall, however, he is miring himself in all it stands for: “I have taken adultery, incest, conspiracy and treason, and I have made them routine,” he thinks, while waiting for the inevitable outcome of Anne’s trial for treason. Routine in the sense of boring and dull, but also in the sense of normalisation.

It is an uncomfortable truth about Thomas Cromwell that in being Henry VIII’s yes-man and facilitator he sanctioned permissiveness and shaped a climate of fear and coercion at court. Part of the interest in Bring Up The Bodies lies in how Mantel handles Cromwell’s character, how she justifies to herself and the reader all that Cromwell says and does. In Wolf Hall, she took a man commonly held to be a butcher’s dog and fashioned him into a stray puppy guaranteed to find a place within the homes and hearts of English men and women. 

It’s said the English love an underdog, and some of the comments from internet reviews of Wolf Hall are illuminating in this respect (the following are taken from Amazon): “I loved the story of how the child of an abusive, alcoholic blacksmith used skill and charm to win the trust and respect of almost everyone he encountered . . . He’s an enlightened man, a loving husband and father . . . He comes across as genuinely humane and sympathetic . . . He rose above his class through hard work and observation . . . He climbed the social ladder but found positions for any promising, hard-working young people that crossed his path . . . He contributed so much to our commonwealth and died so tragically.”

It is telling that most of these reviews begin, “I know nothing about this period of history, or Thomas Cromwell, but . . .” That, however, is the whole point of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies: as works of fiction they take complex and uncomfortable historical fact and make it subjective, fluid, accessible. Cromwell is given the same treatment: he is now a cuddly, devoted family man, self-made and generous with it. He works to make Parliament “see how it is the State’s job to create work” and “that rich men might have some duty to the poor”. He proposes income tax and believes that criminality is caused by poverty and unemployment. To say you don’t like him is tantamount to opposing the welfare state. He holds up a mirror to a reader who wants to be identified with him as an urbane, liberal, egalitarian, fair-minded, tolerant citizen of the world.

“History is a mirror that flatters Thomas More,” he says towards the end of Wolf Hall, “but I have another mirror.” Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are mirrors that flatter Thomas Cromwell, but in looking into them we see something of ourselves and our current concerns reflected back. Mantel’s Cromwell speaks to an intellectual climate immersed in moral relativism, in which potentially divisive truth claims and received doctrines are abandoned in favour of a doctrine of diversity and tolerance. Thomas More’s refusal to sign the Oath of Succession presented a potentially divisive truth claim, hence the force brought by the state (represented by Thomas Cromwell) against him.

In Wolf Hall we are told that Cromwell never sees More without wanting to ask him:

Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. 

“Confirm you in what you believed before” suggests a closed-mindedness and unwillingness to learn from other cultures, which is naturally going to have readers who do not care to find out about Thomas More (and his reasons for not signing the Oath) thinking in ways that are unfair to the model of humanist scholarship embodied by More and Erasmus.

Mantel’s More “would chain you up for a mistranslation” whereas her Cromwell would count different translations equally valid. Bring Up The Bodies, like Wolf Hall, consistently conflates the issue of biblical translation with the changes that needed to be made to a corrupt Church, as if in opposing prompt translation of the Bible into English, More and Erasmus were trying to keep English men and women under the power of those who had privileged knowledge. Mantel neglects to mention that humanist scholars wanted a translation but only when a consensus in scholarly opinion prevailed.

 But Hilary Mantel is hardly going to make Cromwell put the case for the opposition. Her Cromwell is the poster boy for beating those nasty elitist academic types at their own game: he overcame his humble origins through hard work and natural talent, and thumbed his nose at those who got to the same position through inherited wealth and family influence. In Wolf Hall, Mantel has Cromwell say of the ruling class, “The trick is to always keep them up to their own standards. They made the rules.” The appeal of such rhetoric goes without saying, as does its application to modern Britain.

Bring Up The Bodies continues to conflate necessary church reform (rooting out sexual abuse by the clergy, for example) with radical reform (dissolving monasteries that served as schools and hospitals for their communities), presenting Cromwell as a man seeking to liberate all from a hypocritical Church. For those who would use the recent child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church as a reason for making Britain entirely secular, Mantel’s Cromwell is a gift.

Yet few in the Tudor Church were as corrupt and hypocritical as Cardinal Wolsey, and when in Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell exacts revenge for old master Wolsey, Mantel’s language positively glows with praise: “Four men, who for a joke turned the cardinal into a beast; who took away his wit, his kindness, and his grace.” We’re meant to like Cromwell for his loyalty to his old friend Wolsey at this point, but his ability  selectively to recall only that which suits his ends, his ability to hold a grudge for so long, and his willingness to see innocent men hanged, drawn and tortured, is chilling in the extreme and morally queasy-making- considering how the reader is supposed to identify with him.

The way Mantel treats the issue of torture in Bring Up The Bodies is interesting, as Wolf Hall painted Thomas More as a sadistic torturer, a portrait which the Tudor historian John Guy refutes in his essay on More and heretics in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More. In Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel is bound by historical record to show Cromwell likewise having to deal with men who won’t cooperate when he asks them to. These men were the unfortunate souls Cromwell seized upon when needing expedient reasons to call Anne Boleyn’s reputation into disrepute in a court of law, so that she might be found guilty of treason and summarily executed, thus making way for Jane Seymour and easing Cromwell’s path into the future. These particular men were easy targets because there was enough circumstantial evidence in their dealings with Anne Boleyn to warrant use in a court of law. Their innocence or guilt was irrelevant: Cromwell was only interested in truths he could twist, truths he could use.

This portrayal of Cromwell as a deeply humane man who treats his victims with kindness is unsettling to say the least. Where the historical record is sketchy, imagination supplies the deficit, and that is Mantel’s prerogative as a writer of historical fiction. When it comes to torture, the same applies: one victim is locked in an attic which, he is told, is haunted. Brushing against a bag of feathers, his imagination runs wild. Thinking it’s a ghost he is terrified, but it’s his own imagination torturing him, not Cromwell, thus absolving Cromwell entirely. 

Mantel’s Cromwell is a man who only has to present the facts, rationally and liberally, to his victims to make them comply: “Well, now, I didn’t rack Thomas More, did I? I sat in a room with him.” He is the image of reasoning tolerant humanity, completely absolved and untainted by murky dealings. If anyone has died, he is not to blame because they brought it upon themselves. His hands are clean:

What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

There is no blood on the hands of Mantel’s Cromwell. He is like a state                      fashioning an image of itself as morally clean, above practices like water-boarding or extraordinary rendition, needing only to show to the world its enlightened and rational face for all to realise its moral superiority.

Mantel’s interest in the values of the French Revolution, explored most thoroughly in A Place of Greater Safety, continues in Cromwell. He embodies European Enlightenment values, for all that he’s a Tudor man. He regards anyone who cannot reason themselves out of supersitition as beneath contempt, and is in many ways a proto-Hitchens, “the very man if an argument about God breaks out”.

While making an inventory of relics from a dissolved monastery, Cromwell’s agent says, “Reason cannot win against these people. You try to open their eyes. But ranged against you are statues of the virgin that weep tears of blood.” This echoes John Searle’s comment on “the contemporary scientific world view” that “when we encounter people who claim to believe such things, we may envy them the comfort and security they claim to derive from these beliefs, but at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith.”

Looking into Cromwell’s mirror, it’s easy to see contemporary secular Britain reflected back. Cromwell’s efforts to put  state in places formerly occupied by church, his wholesale rendering unto Caesar, paved the way for modern secular society in which the welfare state has replaced the Christian virtues as an unassailable tenet of our secular creed. The obvious parallels between Cromwell’s world view and contemporary Western values are fully drawn out by the American historian Brad Gregory in his new book The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press, £25). Gregory notes how the rejection of the central truth claims of medieval Christianity engendered a pluralism leading to moral and cultural relativism, taken up by the state and its institutions: “A centrally important, paradoxical characteristic of modern liberalism is that it does not prescribe what citizens should believe, how they should live, or what they should care about.” But “it nonetheless depends for the social cohesion and political vitality of the regimes it informs on the voluntary acceptance of widely shared beliefs, values” and norms. “Otherwise liberal states have to become more legalistic and coercive in order to ensure stability and security.”

Legalistic and coercive are words aptly fitted to Thomas Cromwell. “The fist of Cromwell is more proximate than the hand of God,” says Cromwell’s fool. While Mantel absolves him of outright thuggery, he nonetheless makes his physical presence felt in order to achieve certain ends in Bring Up The Bodies

A consummate lawyer, he makes the law serve him, manipulating language to make it soft, persuasive, powerful. His mind is “infinitely flexible” and he confers the same quality on any legal phrase so that he can always be said to be acting within the letter of the law. He uses law to coerce; he flexes it like a whip and people fall in line.

 Language is powerful and power, in the abstract, can be exerted for good or ill. Having studied law, Mantel is surely alive to this fact, and to the ways in which legal language can serve both justice and injustice.

“Whose side is this fellow on?” Charles Brandon asks of Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies. The same may be asked of Mantel. Ostensibly, she is on Cromwell’s side. She has placed that mirror in his hand. She sees what it reflects. But there is also a sense in which she has placed it at such an angle that it dazzles her reader, causing temporary blindness. Her infinitely flexible literary imagination is able to project into any mind, any body. Because he has to second-guess Katherine of Aragon’s legal arguments Cromwell “enters into her concerns”. The narrator (Cromwell? Mantel?) remarks, “How close we hug our enemies! They are our familiars, our other selves.”

Any sequel to Bring Up The Bodies may yet reveal that Cromwell has been Mantel’s enemy, hugged close and entered into, so that she may make her argument across him. His persuasive rhetoric is dangerous, and Bring Up The Bodies is a wonderfully skilful, dangerous work. It shows how dangerous it can be when a country forgets its own history; how, when readers unreflectingly allow themselves to be swayed by powerful rhetoric, they can end up identifying with a point of view without knowing how they got there, backed into a corner.

Mantel has said in interviews that she wants the reader to ask, “Wouldn’t I have done the same in Cromwell’s situation? What other choice did he have?” Brad Gregory makes the point that by definition the past has made the present what it is, but things did not have to turn out this way. Institutionally and ideologically, materially and morally, we need not have ended up where we are. Human decisions were made that did not have to be made, some of which turned out to be deeply consequential. Patterns were established and new behaviours normalised that need not have taken hold.

Suddenly, there is Cromwell normalising incest, conspiracy and treason, making them routine. Yet this is also Mantel’s liberal, enlightened, tolerant Thomas Cromwell: a man for our season. In Bring Up The Bodies he stands in a hall of mirrors, an endlessly posed question, like the author herself. Whom does she serve? Cromwell’s vision of modern liberalism? Or Thomas More’s reminder that there is always the choice to speak truth to power?