Thomas Cromwell - as painted by Hans Holbein. Holbein, always a minor character in Wolf Hall, only appears briefly at the beginning of Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel's narrative delves beneath the severe exterior portrayed by Holbein.
Anne Boleyn - Anne ensured she had iron clad promises from Henry that he would marry her before she began a relationship with her. Unfortunately, their failure to have a son in their marriage ultimately led to her downfall.
Harry Percy - Percy was contracted to marry Anne Boleyn before Henry Tudor took an interest in her. Forced to swear he had no contract or any relationship with Anne prior to Henry's marriage with her, he is later asked to swear he did when that becomes the expedient reality for Henry.
Reviewed by: bikerbuddy
Category: Booker Prize Winner; Historical Fiction
Date Read: 13 February 2020
I reread Bring Up the Bodies as part of the Booker Prize Project for this site, as well as in anticipation of the release of the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Series next month, The Mirror and the Light.
Bring Up the Bodies maintains all the ingredients of Wolf Hall which made it so compelling: the subtle, powerful writing, Court intrigue, insight into Cromwell’s character as well as the atmosphere of sixteenth century England. Bring Up the Bodies is a more focussed piece of writing, though; focussed on the key drama of the fall of Anne Boleyn and the men accused of being her lovers. There remain glimpses of the wider political implications of Henry and Anne’s marriage and their failure to produce a male heir, along with the external pressures from Europe, hoping to encourage Henry to rid himself of
the concubine and returning to the fold of the Catholic Church. But the novel is primarily concerned with the trajectory of events that lead to Anne’s demise.
Bring Up the Bodies begins with Henry’s visit to Wolf Hall which is anticipated in the closing scenes of the previous book. Henry’s eye strays to the young and innocent Jane Seymour. He spends time with her during his visit and seeks her approval. Meanwhile, Jane’s family watch, excited by the prospects of Jane becoming a favoured mistress of the king.
But Jane’s fate is to become Henry’s third wife. While he is enamoured of Jane, she is of little use to Henry unless he can marry her legitimately. Ironically, Anne, Henry’s current wife, must be supplanted for this to happen, as she previously supplanted Henry’s first wife, Katherine. In the case of Katherine, Henry broke with the church of Rome in order to achieve his end, and had his marriage annulled on the basis that Anne had been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur. Katherine had claimed she never consummated that marriage before Arthur died, but Henry’s need for a new marriage and a legitimate male heir overturned that claim.
In the case of Anne, Henry has a few possible justifications to annul the marriage which Master Secretary Cromwell might use to advantage. The most personally sordid involves Henry’s former relationship with Anne’s sister Mary, but that implicates the King in wrongdoing. A second option involves Harry Percy, whom Anne was contracted to marry years before. When it was expedient, Harry was forced to deny the contract under oath. But when Cromwell turns up four years later to ask him to retract his denial – he had not perjured himself, Cromwell assures him, his memory had merely failed when he denied the contract – Percy’s reaction is understandably incredulous and somewhat humorous:
I was married to Anne, but had forgotten?
The scene highlights what is an obvious difficulty for a writer dramatizing Anne Boleyn’s destruction from the point of view of the chief architect of her downfall, Thomas Cromwell: the whole thing is more than likely an expedient stitch-up. And what is worse, Cromwell achieved Henry’s ends not by destroying Mary Boleyn’s reputation or by claiming a prior marriage as he did with Katherine, but by incriminating Anne along with five other men: her brother George, Francis Weston, Henry Norris of the King’s privy chamber, William Brereton and a young musician, Mark Smeaton. Anne and these men were accused variously of incest (Anne and her brother George Boleyn), adultery and treason (there was supposedly a plot to kill the king). Their purported crimes necessitated execution. Unlike Katherine, who lived under house arrest for the remainder of her life, Anne was beheaded.
Mantel seeks to dig beneath the surface of these events to
try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view; in short
to make the reader a proposal, an offer. It is this offer, Mantel’s thesis which rests upon Cromwell’s character, that makes this book extraordinary. Without distorting the historical record in any meaningful way (except in the manner of authors to select their detail, and by Mantel’s own admission, to remove some extraneous minor characters who would have overcomplicated and muddied the plot). Mantel is able to maintain sympathy for Anne, who sees her husband’s interest and her political influence fading, for Katherine and her dogged devotion to the truth of her marriage and her concern for Mary, her daughter, while also drawing the reader into the mind and machinations of Cromwell, the man who worked in Henry’s interests to remove them both, without alienating us.
Mantel’s historical thesis is that Anne’s downfall was orchestrated through the ruin of four men for personal reasons known only to Cromwell. It is an intriguing possibility, although difficult to assess. But it makes for compelling reading. Brereton may have been targeted by Cromwell over his attempts to change local government in the Welsh Marshes, according to one historical theory, but in Mantel’s version, Brereton is targeted along with Weston, Norris and Boleyn over a personal matter. Each was involved in a play after Cardinal Wolsey’s death that portrayed Wolsey being dragged to Hell by four devils. The scene occurs in the first half of Wolf Hall, typically planted long by Mantel before its significance is revealed. Cromwell recalls the scene in Bring Up the Bodies:
But the audience catcalled as if it had been real, they yelled and shook their fists, they swore and mocked. Behind a screen the four devils pulled off their masks and their hairy jerkins, cursing and laughing. They saw Thomas Cromwell leaning against the panelling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.
Each of the accused played one of the four devils. However, Thomas Wyatt, most under suspicion by many in the Court concerning his relationship with the queen, is protected by Cromwell. He is also arrested and sent to the Tower, but he is not tried or executed.
No friend of mine will suffer Cromwell assures him.
Once you are in the Tower no one can question you without my permission. Wyatt is a friend of Cromwell, respected for his fine mind and his verse (Wyatt is credited with introducing the sonnet form into England). Also, Cromwell believes it was Wyatt who loudly denounced the performance satirising Wolsey from the crowd. It is an interesting thesis and probably impossible to prove, but as historical fiction it deftly underlines the nexus of public and private that Mantel dramatized in Wolf Hall.
Mantel illustrates the vagaries of life with the convergence of Katherine’s death, Anne’s miscarriage and Henry’s jousting accident that sets off a brief flurry of political manoeuvring before it is realised that Henry is, in fact, still alive. It is the moment Cromwell is most vulnerable, with the King presumably dead and his enemies, the Boleyns set to seize power. Cromwell is always aware of how far he has come, constantly reminded of low status as the son of a blacksmith, but how far he has to fall should the tide turn against him. His chief lesson is Wolsey, he fell out of favour with the king in Wolf Hall. Cromwell, mentored by Wolsey and deeply devoted to him – he still wears mourning for him on the night of the performance – seeks revenge by pursuing Anne’s alleged lovers, but also to evade Wolsey’s fate. Wolsey’s fall came because he could not achieve Henry’s wishes. Cromwell does not intend to end the same. To avoid that, he must construct some narrative that legally frees Henry of Anne. But Wyatt’s head is not needed for that. In real life, Wyatt would later write a poem in memory of the five executed men.
That Cromwell can achieve his revenge in this manner speaks of his calculated patience, but it also humanises him, to a degree. Cromwell is deeply loyal to Wolsey, and angered at the assassination of the Cardinal’s reputation. But Cromwell is a man capable of suppressing his own instinctive emotions for his long-term goals – he is able to bury his initial attraction to Jane Seymour when he discovers that Henry is interested in her – which suggests a level of Machiavellian intent, a master of Realpolitik, but also a deeply human man. His wife and daughters, who die in Wolf Hall, are ever in his mind, as is the Cardinal. Cromwell is fiercely loyal, even beyond the pragmatic loyalty he shows to Henry. He is loyal to Wyatt against the pressure to send him down. He saves his life.
Mantel’s narrative style is both sparse as well as poetically powerful, suggesting Cromwell’s dual character. To the world he is workaday and reticent, but Mantel’s prose is also capable of capturing his observations in constructions that employ breath taking metaphors and twists of unexpected insight that reveal the man his contemporaries barely know. Yet Bring Up the Bodies moves at a faster pace and with tighter focus than Wolf Hall, almost as though it is the climactic movement of the preceding novel. It is exemplifies great character writing, while condensing the matter of Anne’s fall without oversimplifying it. Mantel’s two books, so far, are some of the best historical fiction I have read.
The miniseries Wolf Hall covers events from Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Mark Smeaton - Smeaton was a young musician in Henry's court. He was the only one of the five men known to have confessed to adultery with the queen. This is the reason Wyatt accorded him some blame in his poem 'In Mourning wise since daily I increase'. However, history records he may have been tortured to achieve this confession, since he was a commoner. Mantel softens this accusation to humanise Cromwell. Cromwell forbids his torturing. Instead, he scares himself into confessing when he is locked in a dark room with Christmas costumes. Believing he has been touched by a ghost, he not only confesses, but implicates any number of people in his fear, including, paradoxically, the king. His manner of confession in the novel lends weight to the notion that Anne's putative lovers were victims of Cromwell's revenge.
George Boleyn - Boleyn is accused of incest with Anne. The accusation is believed because he grew up separate to her. Cromwell suggests that it is not unusual for such a thing to happen in order to make his case.
Francis Weston - Weston's family attempted to bribe Henry with everything they had in order to have him released. It did not help.
Henry Norris - Norris is tasked with conveying love letters between Henry and Anne early in the novel.
William Brereton - Brereton has been identified as a political opponent of Cromwell, but Mantel castes him as one of the four who dress as devils and take Wolsey to hell in a Court play. In Mantel's novel it becomes the underlying motivation for their fall.