Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2013.
Summary: The second part of Mantel’s historical fiction on the life of Thomas Cromwell, from Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn to her downfall and execution.
Thomas Cromwell enjoys more power than ever. Katherine is out, her marriage to Henry VIII annulled. Anne Boleyn, never at ease with Cromwell, has borne Henry a daughter and the hopes are that she will bear a son. In the summer of 1535 she is pregnant once again, although the progress of the pregnancy doesn’t seem right. Already the aging Henry has begun to look elsewhere in hope of begetting a son to take the throne.
Katherine is dying and passes. Mary, her daughter, refuses to reconcile to Henry. Then Anne gives birth to a stillborn son. Henry is increasingly enamored with one of Anne’s ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour. Much of this volume centers around the shrewd maneuverings of the ambitious Seymour family of Wolf Hall. Jane shows herself receptive to Henry while giving nothing away as long as Anne is queen.
It is to Cromwell Henry turns once again to “fix” his problem, and he shrewdly manages to obtain critical confessions leading to Anne being charged with incest with her brother George, and adultery with four other men. Apparently a number of historians believe Cromwell was the one who engineered Anne’s downfall. Mantel portrays him as the loyal “fixer” who accomplishes the King’s wishes, inexorably building the case that eventuated in six beheadings, and opened the way for Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour.
At the end, Cromwell is more powerful yet, being raised to Baron, succeeding Anne’s father as Lord Privy Seal. Yet throughout this narrative, one has the sense that Thomas knows that it could one day be his turn to feel the executioners axe. He has risen from a peasant to such power simply by serving at the King’s pleasure, a king whose pleasures easily change direction, whose loyalties shift, when one fails to please. He has watched this happen to Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and the powerful people around Anne. In Mantel’s words “He thinks, strive as I might, one day I will be gone and as this word goes it may not be long: what though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do for me or my friends.”
Mantel portrays a Cromwell who rises by competence, and by not being deterred by moral qualms from doing what was necessary to serve his king. He can be ruthlessly pragmatic and at the same time a loving father wanting only the best for son Gregory, worrying about his fate in jousting matches. With a wink and a nod as it were, he permits Lady Willoughby to attend Katherine at her death. Ruthless, shrewd, loyal, and tender by turn, this is Mantel’s Cromwell. He is also a man trapped by his loyalty and success, who cannot walk away from the King who has come to depend so much upon him and so richly rewarded him. What will that cost him?
Bring Up the Bodies is the winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize.
Earlier this spring, I reviewed the preceding volume, Wolf Hall, covering the rise Cromwell to the fall of Katherine, Henry VIII’s first wife.