This is the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the other two being “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”. You do not have to have read the other two books to read this one because the story of Henry VIII is well-enough known. What is astonishing about these books is the detail, the bringing to life of some of the minor players in what has become a defining moment in English, indeed British, history. It is also striking that Thomas Cromwell is the hero, which he has not been for a very long time. The last book I remember in which the centrality of his role was remembered was G.R. Elton’s “Tudor Revolution in Government”. It is usual for Thomas Cromwell to be the villain, as in “A Man for All Seasons” and not for that role to be played by Sir Thomas More.
By the start of this book, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More have both been executed and Katherine of Aragon is dead, but their ghosts haunt all the people they knew. Henry has married his third wife, Jane Seymour after the death of Katherine of Aragon, so there can be no doubt that she is Queen-Consort, but she has no son, no heir for the Kingdom. [These were the days when there had never been a Queen-Regnant in England. Matilda had attempted it but was not successful. Stephen, Henry II and Henry VII all claimed the throne through their mothers, who were alive at the time]. The succession was not secure.
Henry VIII was older than both his grandfathers, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Edward IV when they died, both suddenly and unexpectedly. He was approaching the age at which his father Henry VII had died. Henry VIII also had an ulcerated leg from a jousting injury, and it would not heal, causing him a great deal of pain. He was becoming aware of his own mortality. The need to produce an undisputed heir was urgent.
The King had an illegitimate son, Henry Duke of Richmond, by Bessie Blount, and two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, that he had declared to be illegitimate. There were also the children of his two sisters, Margaret, the Queen of Scotland and Mary, the Queen Dowager of France and Duchess of Suffolk, but there was no male heir if you did not count James V, King of Scotland (and he never seems to have been considered).
The other thing that had happened was the Reformation. The history of the English Reformation would have been very different if any of Queen Katherine’s sons had survived for more than a few days, weeks or months. But they did not. The need for a male heir led Henry VIII to petition the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine. Unfortunately for Henry, Pope Clement VII was a prisoner of Katherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V who felt duty bound to maintain his aunt’s honour. [He did not take the same view about his own mother, Queen Joanna, who he had imprisoned in the castle of Tordesillas, so that he could rule Spain].
This is the political situation at the start of this last book in the trilogy. This summary should enable you to read this book, even if you have not read the first two volumes of the trilogy.
Having spent this much time briefing you on the history, what about the book itself. It is quite simply a tour de force. Hilary Mantel sweeps you through the events that formed the country that we know. It was the period in which Henry VIII broke free from the Roman Church and set England and therefore Britain on a trajectory that affects us to the present day. It is a story that she tells through the eye of the people who were at the centre of events. Some of them are well-known, and some of them are figures on the edge of events. Some of them, such as Christophe and Jenneke, are invented but drawn with such conviction that they fit into the story without any difficulty or intrusion. Others like Hans Holbein, were real but played a very small part in the political events of the time. Others, like Rafe Sadler and Eustache Chapuys, were significant witnesses of and players in the events that are described. The two figures, of course, who dominate the story are Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell which is only appropriate as they dominated the political events of their time, and were indeed the driving forces of those events.
Hilary Mantel draws an intimate picture of the court life of the time. Through the minor characters, such as Lady Rochford, Lady Margaret Douglas, Lady Lisle and Lady Oughtred, she shows how the women of the court were both able to influence events and how they were at the mercy of those events because of their proximity to power. Lady Rochford was the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn and played a significant role in securing her execution by accusing her of incest with Lord Rochford. Lady Margaret Douglas was the niece of Henry VIII, and made a marriage that did not have his consent. Her son, by a second marriage, was the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Lady Lisle was the aunt of Henry VIII, having married the illegitimate brother of Henry’s mother. Lady Oughtred was the sister of Jane Seymour. All four were at the heart of events. All four had their lives determined by those events. All four were at the mercy of events and their menfolk. I have chosen the women to illustrate a point. The men, such as the Duke of Norfolk, Bishop Gardiner and indeed Thomas Cromwell, were able to influence events, but were not always in control of them. That can be said even about Henry VIII.
There are also the bravura scenes, such as Henry VIII talking to Thomas Cromwell whilst his defining portrait is being painted by Hans Holbein. Or Lady Rochford telling Thomas Cromwell that the marriage to Anne of Cleves has not been consummated. Or Thomas Cromwell in a room in the Tower, contemplating his past. Hilary Mantel is a mistress of descriptive power.
There is also a very useful list of the characters and how they relate to each other, in case you lose track. I am not so convinced about the family trees. One shows Katherine of Aragon as the daughter of Henry VII, instead of being married to his two sons. This is just sloppy but it is nothing to do with Hilary Mantel. There is also a useful afterword which tells you what happens to the various characters, following the death of Cromwell and then Henry VIII. Strangely, it does not say that is was Thomas Cranmer who passed the evidence to Henry VIII, proving the adulteries of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard which led to her execution, and that of her cousin, Henry, Earl of Surrey. It does say that the Duke of Norfolk escaped execution because Henry VIII died first.
904 pages may seem daunting but it is not. This is one of the easiest reads I have had since “Bring Up the Bodies”.