Just as her protagonist Thomas Cromwell set himself a near impossible task in attempting to steer the mercurial temperament of Henry VIII, Hilary Mantel set herself a near impossible task in following the first two masterful volumes of this story. However, also like her protagonist, Mantel is never one to shrink from a job of whatever magnitude or difficulty, and so we have this, the final volume in her Cromwell trilogy, and it’s nearly as dark and difficult to get through for this reader as it was for Cromwell himself. I mean, okay, I wasn’t dead at the end of it, but I felt wrung out long before the final pages.
The first two books of the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are my favorite fiction books of the past decade and among my favorite books period. Mantel is a seriously gifted writer with a keen mind and even better ear, and an indefatigable researcher. As far as I’m concerned, she has elevated the much maligned genre of historical fiction to previously unattained heights. Mirror is not an exception, but I found it a much heavier and less enjoyable read. Partly that’s down to my own feelings about not wanting this story to end and trepidation at the way I knew it would end, with (nominal spoiler alert) Cromwell losing his head. And possibly because of those reasons plus the fact that I’m reading this grim tale in the midst of a pandemic, I found myself much more able to put this book down than the other two. Partly it’s just the fault of the book itself. It lacks in some ways the lightness and sense of joy in the language of the other two, but that’s to be expected given the nature of the story.
We rejoin the story moments after the beheading of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, which in a sense is the climactic moment in the story of Henry – and Cromwell. One of the underlying ideas of Mirror is that neither the kingdom nor the king can expect to recover unscathed by such an episode – and neither can those around the king. Not least the man who engineered Boleyn’s downfall, the king’s Master Secretary, Cromwell. As Mantel says in the book’s third sentence, “The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us.”
Once those first few hours and days are gotten through, there is a brief glimmer of hope and optimism. Henry weds his third wife Jane Seymour, whom Henry finds refreshingly chaste, religious and upbeat after the troublesome and lusty Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is elevated to the position of Lord Privy Seal and continues to consolidate his power and wealth, bring down disloyal nobles and strip remnants of the Roman church of their power and wealth. And Jane produces a healthy male heir – cause of great rejoicing – but then, she quickly succumbs to what we would later know as puerpural fever, casting the king and kingdom once again into despondency. The remainder of the book’s more than 750 pages are a series of ever-thickening intrigues as the anti-Cromwell nobles claw back their power, peasants in the North revolt over religious issues, France, Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor all seek to stymie Henry’s already waning influence on the Continent, and Cromwell flounders in his attempt to find the monarch a fourth wife. Eventually he procures a match with Anna of Cleves (in one of the Protestant German states), whom Henry agrees to marry having seen only a small Holbein portrait of her, but whom he finds unattractive in person. Cromwell begins to fear for his position and his head at this point, but Henry unexpectedly elevates him further, making him the first Earl of Essex, adding to Cromwell’s extensive wealth in property, goods and money.
Cromwell himself is aging, becoming increasingly tired and jaundiced. And even on occasion becoming less likable. In the first two books one admired his tenacious loyalty as he brought low those who had brought down and mocked his old mentor Cardinal Wolsey – even though Wolsey himself was one of the most corrupt church officials in England’s history. But increasingly we see Cromwell coming to resemble those less admirable traits of Wolsey’s. He’s becoming greedy, amassing an unsettling number of estates and titles, and seemingly blind to how this makes him look from outside his guarded walls.
One of his chief stumbling blocks is the person of Reginald Pole, member of prominent family with rival dynastic claims to Henry, and a steadfast Papist who is tripping around Europe stirring up sentiment against Henry and Cromwell’s religious reforms. (He eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry’s daughter Mary.) Cromwell resorts to jailing and mentally breaking Pole’s brother Geoffrey, after which Cromwell is full of complaints and uncharacteristically negative. And he’s starting to show the strain of his age and the constant demands of his multiple offices. He misses clues, and he sometimes speaks before he thinks, even after warning his young wards – son Gregory, nephew Richard and chief clerk Rafe Sadler – to always think things through before acting, but learn to think fast.
Cromwell is serving a monarch facing tremendous pressures in a rapidly changing world. England is full of noble houses that would like to see things return to a previous era when their houses had more influence than that of any king, or that have a greater dynastic claim on the kingship than the upstart Tudors. Royal houses all over Europe are consolidating lands and power, but on his small island Henry has few options for growing his power beyond taking over the Church. So that’s what he does, and sets the ruthless Cromwell the task of stripping Church properties of their wealth and power and turning it over to the king. Cromwell is immensely capable, but eventually his enemies are able to convince Henry that Cromwell has amassed too much wealth and power and is a threat to the throne.
At least that’s one way to read the story from nearly 500 years on. I’ve learned a lot about the period that made it easier to understand the historical background of Cromwell’s times from a couple of main sources: the Tides of History podcast on the Wondery network, which recently completed a lengthy series on the Early Modern era; and the Wikipedia entries on the House of Tudor and Henry VIII.
Mantel of course went directly to the source documents in her research, and has interpreted what she found there in three novel and entertaining books. The Mirror and the Light is a worthy conclusion to this story, but although it still contains plenty of her marvelous wit and sparkling prose, its overall atmosphere is gloomy and depressed. It’s an apt and accurate description of life under a ruler who is becoming increasingly self-involved and prone to solve problems through violence. You should read this book, just be warned. It sometimes hits quite close to home in the chaotic days of 2020.
I’d be remiss in not pointing you toward Mantel’s Reith Lectures on the BBC. They’re from 2017 while she was still writing Mirror but they’re an excellent look into her thoughts and processes.
(Henry Holt and Company, 2020)