Hilary Mantel Takes Thomas Cromwell Down

As the author’s remarkable trilogy ends, her epic hero’s self-mastery is newly in doubt.

illustration of Thomas Cromwell
Aaron Marin

In the first two novels of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel sings, as it were, the poem of his rise. This is Cromwell as epic hero. The son of a blacksmith and brewer from the hamlet of Putney, Cromwell has become both chief minister to King Henry VIII and the most powerful man in England aside from the king; some say he is more powerful than the king. Mantel’s Cromwell is omniscient—he has spies everywhere—and omnicompetent. He excels at ironwork, the culinary arts, the cloth trade, finance, civil engineering, legislation, and diplomacy. His wit is quick and endearing, except when it’s cutting. Above all, he plays Henry’s court with consummate dexterity, always several moves ahead of potential opponents.

In The Mirror & the Light, which closes the trilogy, we witness Cromwell’s fall. This is not a spoiler. You can Google his fate in eight seconds. Mantel’s job is to make the inevitable suspenseful, which she does by turning her protagonist into a tragic hero. In tragedy, the hero is blind to how he brings about his own doom, either because of hubris or because the gods have willed his ignorance, or both. Cromwell has become almost cocky. He has taken risks before, but he always exhibited near-perfect self-mastery. His profession requires dealing with “grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe,” Mantel writes in the middle novel. “Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy [and] calmness.” Now he allows himself treasonous thoughts: “It is I who tell [the king] who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.” And he records too-candid observations in a volume of advice for his protégés, “The Book Called Henry.” Mantel makes us wonder: Does Cromwell have himself fully in hand? If not, why not? What strange forces drive him; does he understand them; and, most important, can he control them in time?

When we leave Cromwell at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, he has just destroyed a queen, doing maximal damage in the process. The king, having tired of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and fallen in love with Jane Seymour, told Cromwell to deal with the situation. Cromwell did—he always does—but his methods were extreme. He choreographed the trials and convictions of Anne and her alleged lovers on either trumped-up or wildly exaggerated charges of adultery and incest. The public was treated to scenes of what can only be characterized as royal pornography, all of which turned on the theme of the king’s sexual inadequacy. Five men, including Anne’s brother, were beheaded. Cromwell plucked four of them out of the swirl of court gossip not because he thought they were guilty but to avenge his beloved late master, Cardinal Wolsey, who fell from power seven years earlier and whom the young men ridiculed for the court’s amusement.

As The Mirror & the Light opens, Cromwell is back at the scene of the execution. Anne’s body “swims in a pool of fluid crimson,” and he seems his usual hearty self, thinking about his second breakfast. In the background, however, Mantel is darkening the mood. In the previous novel, Anne’s attendants, veiled so as not to be tainted by association with her death, used their bodies to block the men approaching the corpse. “We do not want men to handle her,” they said. Now the shrouded women are silent, stylized; they force the men back with palms upturned. They could be dancers in a Greek chorus, or the Furies.

Beneath his bluster, Cromwell feels uneasy. When Anne had climbed the scaffold a few moments earlier, he’d found himself admiring her poise. But now other men make crude remarks. These offend him—he who planted the filthy thoughts in their head. “I’d have put her on a dunghill,” says Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. “And the brother underneath her.” Cromwell berates Brandon for lacking mercy. “By God,” says the duke, a rival. “You read me a lesson? I? A peer of the realm? And you, from the place where you come from?” Cromwell spits out: “I stand just where the king has put me.” Then he asks himself, “Cromwell, what are you doing?” But he waves away his disquiet: “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

Thomas Cromwell, speaking truth to a man who could harm him? We weren’t expecting that, and as will become clear, now is not the moment to be imprudent. The Mirror & the Light covers four years of Cromwell’s life, from 1536 to 1540. He is at the peak of his career. The king has made him a baron and appointed him the lord keeper of the privy seal, an office that gives him even more access to the king. Henry has also let him hold on to the titles of master secretary and vicegerent, a powerful new position in the English Church. “It is a thing never seen before,” says Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well.” Cromwell does what he did earlier, a manic whirl of endeavors that include filling the king’s coffers with revenue from monasteries confiscated from the Vatican and trying to reinforce England’s independence from the pope. His “cause,” as he calls it, is to publish a translation of the Bible. Everyone in the king’s realm should be able to read the Bible in English—if only to see what isn’t in it: popes, monks, counterfeit relics used by priests to fleece the poor.

Cromwell’s main duty, as ever, is to keep the king happy. That entails managing Henry’s volatile emotions: anxiety about begetting a legitimate male heir, shame at growing old and obese, eruptions of self-pity. For once, the king has no qualms about his queen, but Jane’s tenure is, for Henry and his people, heartbreakingly brief. Cromwell soon has to scour Europe for a bride who both suits Henry’s tastes and is willing to marry an aging, bloated monarch who cast off one queen and killed another. This is as difficult as it sounds.

Cromwell has other problems. A large rebellion has broken out in the north, but the casus belli is not Henry. It’s him, Cromwell, with his low birth, anti-papistry, and suspiciously Jewish-seeming aptitude for making money. The depth of the public’s hatred makes him vulnerable. Is the king annoyed? Are his friends still his friends? Has the king understood Cromwell’s commitment to the new evangelicalism (i.e., Protestantism)?

Another, more serious source of strain in the minister-king relationship is in danger of becoming apparent: Henry has grown bloodthirsty. Cromwell pleads for lives, but when he fails, he gets the blame. “The king never does an unpleasant thing,” notes Queen Jane. “Lord Cromwell does it for him.” Worse, he’s having a hard time suppressing his disgust for Henry. Cromwell rehearses the catechism of sacred kingship, but elevated thoughts all too quickly turn gross. Contemplating the king as the embodiment of the state, which makes his very “piss and stool … the property of all England,” Cromwell envisions Henry’s doctors carrying away the bedpan of royal shit every morning. Cromwell’s dislike bursts into the open when it seems possible that the king will return to the Church. “Even if Henry does turn, I will not turn,” he tells a woman he considers an ally. “I am not too old to take a sword in my hand.” This is the most disloyal statement Cromwell ever makes, and it will not be forgotten.

Mantel has been praised for upending a centuries-old consensus that Cromwell was a man driven only by greed and lust for power. Partial credit for her revisionism goes to a historian named Geoffrey Elton, from whom Mantel takes her cues. Younger scholars have chipped away at Elton’s reassessment, but Mantel stands by her source. Their Cromwell is a true evangelical, a great statesman, and an advocate of good governance. He laid the groundwork for the English Reformation, created the bureaucratic state, empowered Parliament, and fought for hospitals, poor laws, and a census, among other admirable causes.

But that’s Cromwell the public figure. Mantel’s challenge is to give him an inner life. In a Paris Review interview in 2015, six years after Wolf Hall was published, she described the moment he came into focus. She sat down to write, and out flowed the first paragraphs of the series. The boy Cromwell is being beaten nearly to death by his crazed father. The ferocity of the assault is conveyed by a detailed sketch of footwear: “The stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.” Then Mantel stopped writing and asked herself, “Where am I?” The answer, of course, is behind Cromwell’s eyes, which lie inches from the ground. “At that point,” she said, “all the decisions about the book were made, about how to tell the story.”

The one-person perspective gives the books their grip, because Cromwell’s charisma is never allowed to dissipate. At the same time, Mantel has plenty of room for invention. The Cromwell record has large holes in it, probably because as soon as he got into trouble, his supporters burned or carted away as many papers as they could. Mantel works hard to root her imagination in the material and psychological realities of the period. “I’m very concerned about not pretending they’re like us,” she told The Paris Review. “That’s the whole fascination—they’re just not. It’s the gap that’s so interesting.”

And yet, Cromwell is like us. At least, it feels that way. His angle of vision on his late-medieval world is oddly familiar, even if his Tudor mores are alien. We can identify. He’s an early-modern globalist, Homo economicus. He understands that the age of the brave and noble knight is being brought to an end by capitalism. In Wolf Hall, the profligate Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, informs Cromwell that he, Percy, is immune from financial ruin and loss of title by “ancient rights,” and because “bankers have no armies.” Cromwell muses,

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks … Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

The paradox of Mantel’s historical trilogy is that Cromwell’s anachronisms strengthen his credibility as a character. He has a more highly developed class-consciousness than a man of his era ought to have. But we are willing to suspend disbelief, because his uncanny powers of observation have been so well established that he transcends his world, immersed in it as he is. It would be going too far to call Cromwell a feminist, but he does have a rare ability to see past kings to queens—to their miserable lot and uncredited importance. In The Mirror & the Light, a diplomat advises Cromwell not to “pull the women into it.” “The women are already in it,” he replies. “It’s all about women. What else is it about?” In 2013, Mantel published an essay in the London Review of Books titled “Royal Bodies,” which begins with Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge), then moves on to the grim existence of princesses and queens, especially in the Tudor era. “Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story,” Mantel wrote. Like his author, Cromwell understands that the royal enterprise rests on women’s backs, their opened legs, their wombs.

Mantel doesn’t use Cromwell’s insights about women to preach, however. On the contrary: His empathy contributes to his undoing. Over 50 and widowed, Cromwell is lonelier than he realizes, and lack of self-knowledge is perilous for a man in his position. Acting out of pity, or so he tells himself, as well as an oath to her mother and the desire to restrain his “cannibal king,” he steps in to help the Lady Mary, Henry’s spurned first daughter, who has enraged the king and risks execution. The intensity of his efforts gives rise to rumors that he presumes to woo her, which could arouse the king’s wrath against him. But he ignores warnings, and his enemies will make use of a friendship that does have undertones of deeper feeling.

More personally devastating evidence of Cromwell’s emotional purblindness comes to light when he arranges a match between his son, Gregory, and Bess, Queen Jane’s sister. During negotiations with Bess’s brother, Cromwell somehow forgets to say which Cromwell is getting engaged, father or son. Mantel has already suggested that Thomas Cromwell is attracted to Bess, who is witty and perceptive. Eventually the comedy of errors sorts itself out, but at the wedding, Cromwell’s mild-mannered son sharply requests that his father stay away from his wife.

It was a mistake, Cromwell protests. Then he promises to avoid Bess. “I am a man of my word,” he adds. “So many words,” Gregory says.

So many words and oaths and deeds that when folk read of them in time to come they will hardly believe such a man as Lord Cromwell walked the earth. You do everything. You have everything. You are everything. So I beg you, grant me an inch of your broad earth, Father, and leave my wife to me.

Cromwell is stunned. What should he make of it, “that a son can think evil of his father, as if he is a stranger and you cannot tell what he might do”?

Our problem, as readers, is what to make of Cromwell’s lapses. Does he know what he’s doing? Does he know why? Or does he know and not know, like an analysand in a state of disavowal? A self so divided gives Cromwell a depth at once Shakespearean and modernist. He could be Hamlet, or the title character of one of Freud’s case studies. The hero of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was a man of action. “I think it was Faulkner who says, Write down what they say and write down what they do,” Mantel said in The Paris Review interview. “I don’t have pages and pages in which I say Cromwell thought. I tell you what he says, I tell you what he does, and you read between the lines.”

This is not quite true. Cromwell thinks a great deal in those novels, but mostly about the business at hand. The Cromwell of The Mirror & the Light, though, is just as likely to be found ruminating and soliloquizing. His subjects include the past; his revered fellow reformer William Tyndale, the great Bible translator burned as a heretic; himself. Mostly, though, he thinks about the dead, especially those whose deaths he is responsible for. Cromwell dreams of Anne Boleyn as a Christ figure: Her severed head leaves its bloody imprint on the linen it’s wrapped in, as if the cloth were the Shroud of Turin. George Boleyn, Anne’s late brother, weighs on Cromwell, literally. When Cromwell interrogates a prisoner in the Tower, George’s spirit intercepts and grabs onto Cromwell, “head heavy on his shoulder, tears seeping into his linen and leaving a residual salt damp that lasts till he can change his shirt.” People in the 16th century believed in ghosts, but they are so real to him, it’s as if he has crossed over into their world. I take this to be the figurative expression of a death wish—an appropriate affliction, given the atrocities he has committed.

Mantel changes her prose style to accommodate her more haunted Cromwell. In the earlier novels, the sentences were blunt and propulsive; in this one, she slows them down, unlaces them. The language is more elegiac, almost mystical, though as precise as ever. It now has to trace the wavering edges of a once well-defined self. The dissolution of Cromwell coincides with his unmooring in time. Past and future flow into the present. Cromwell flows with them. One moment he is sucked into his childhood; the next, he is hurled into the sphere of the angels. Indeed, the afterlife occasions some of the loveliest writing in this beautifully written book. Cromwell wonders how he’ll recognize his own lost loved ones on the day of his judgment, but just when he needs to, he knows:

He sees how they are visible, and how they shine. They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.

As Mantel brings her series to a close, she makes it almost obsessively reflective—a word that is impossible to avoid. Mirrors are not just in the title of this novel; they’re all over the place. Cromwell tells the king that he’s the “mirror and the light of other kings” (he’s lying, of course). Henry owns more than 100 looking glasses, peering into them in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the handsome prince he used to be. Doubling is one of the dominant themes of the novel. Cromwell serves as the king’s alter ego, but that’s one refraction among many. Cromwell’s present begins to echo his past; old figures reappear in new guises. Henry, for instance, becomes a version of Cromwell’s abusive father. Oddly but aptly, in this novel, Cromwell’s doubles are feline. One is especially disturbing: a starving, caged leopard anonymously deposited in his courtyard. And Mantel has a double too, of course—Cromwell.

Mantel doesn’t indulge in overt self-reflexivity, but one scene midway through the novel could be read as catching her in the act of, well, reflecting on the process of creation. The setting is eerie. Dusk has arrived in the countryside, “when earth and sky melt” and “the eyes of cats shine in the dark.” Inside, where Cromwell sits, “colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air.” The imagery turns bookish, then dreamlike: “The page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow.” Cromwell recommences his incessant dialogue with his selves, the present and the half-remembered, the imagined and the unbounded. His train of thought reminds the reader that Cromwell is also his own author, having fashioned a high minister out of the unlikely material of a ruffian from the streets.

With a novelist’s wonderment at a character who defies understanding, Cromwell sees that he can’t solve the riddle of himself. “You look back into your past and say, is this story mine?,” he thinks, and Mantel could be brooding alongside him:

Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself—slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well?

Yes to all of the above. By the end of these three books, we have been with Cromwell as he lived or revisited most of his life, and we haven’t exhausted his mystery. Nor, obviously, has he. It is a testament to Mantel’s demiurgic imagination, her ability to multiply ambiguities, that by the time Cromwell achieves something like self-knowledge, there is more to him than it is possible to know.