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Cromwell's downfall

Reginald Pole

Pole’s family were rival claimants to the English throne. Pole left England after he refused to support Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and was against the marriage with Anne Boleyn. He remained in exile during Henry’s reign and maintained his support of Rome and the Pope, disavowing Henry’s right to head the English church. In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell promises to have Pole killed to stop his heresy but fails to do so. It is one of the failings upon which Henry builds his case against Cromwell

Stephen Gardiner

Gardiner served as an English Bishop, but for much of the Wolf Hall series he is an ambassador to France. He is an enemy to Cromwell and Cromwell underestimates the influence he will have with the king when he returns to England. Gardiner spearheads the move against Cromwell’s power. Gardiner introduced 6 Articles of Faith which revived Catholic practices and belief that Cromwell was opposed to. Among these was the belief in transubstantiation; the idea of Christ’s body existing in the sacrament. The purpose of the Articles was to end the diversity of opinion and practice. Cromwell’s failure to enforce the Articles was one of the charges brought against him.

Emperor Charles V and King François of France

Much of the plot in The Mirror and the Light is influenced by events external to England. The alliance between the emperor and King François puts England in a perilous position. With these two enemies reconciled, England faces a possible invasion for its position against the Roman church. Henry feels compelled to marry Anne of Cleves in order to form an alliance with the German states. The marriage is a failure and Cromwell will be blamed for it.

Mary Tudor (Mary I)

Mary Tudor, daughter to Henry and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is staunchly Catholic and loyal to the Pope. She risks execution at the beginning of The Mirror and the Light because she refuses to swear an oath to her father, recognising the legitimacy of his new church. She holds Cromwell in high regard and he is able to persuade her to take the oath. Later, false rumours will plague Cromwell that he saved her because he intends to make her his wife. In the worst of these rumours, Mary is his path to taking over the throne. While Henry dismisses the rumours, they never go away, and form a part of the case against Cromwell.

The Mirror and the Light
Hilary Mantel

Reviewed by: bikerbuddy

Category: Historical Fiction

Date Read: 27 March 2020

Pages: 875

Published: 2020

Wolf Hall The Mirror and the Light Bring Up the Bodies

The Mirror and The Light is the third book in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall Trilogy

The Mirror and the Light is the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. It begins with the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s beheading and concludes with Cromwell’s own execution. In between, Mantel dramatizes England’s struggle with its newly forming religious identity (anti-papist yet also eschewing Luther) and the attendant political manoeuvrings that this entails. Like Thomas More, Mary Tudor, the king’s daughter, is in danger of losing her head if she refuses to swear the oath confirming Henry as head of the English church. As always, Cromwell must insert himself between the king and his worst impulses. But Cromwell’s status in this novel is slowly transforming from the indispensable secretary of the first two volumes, to the hapless prisoner awaiting execution. Protecting Mary has its dangers. Rumours abound that Cromwell may be seeking to promote himself by winning Mary’s confidence; even, that he may wish to marry her. Does Cromwell covert the throne? As England’s religious identity is transformed by Cromwell, secretly desiring religious observance more closely aligned with Protestantism, his accumulating titles and power make him a larger and evermore desirable target for enemies like Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Howard (Norfolk).

Mantel’s novel is a grand and powerful finale, large in scope, yet tightly structured to give it a compelling and comprehensible interpretation of the years leading to Cromwell’s fall. The writing is staggeringly good. The third person narrative achieves a first-person intimacy. We are inside Cromwell’s head. We see situations as he sees them. As readers we understand the brilliance of his mind. Yet we are also able to step back and observe the signs that Cromwell misses. Having been promoted an Earl he cannot accept that Henry might betray him. He underestimates the significance of Gardiner’s return to the English court and his influence over Henry. He doesn’t fully appreciate the political weapon he has handed his enemies by failing to have killed the political heretic, Reginald Pole, in Europe, or Henry’s need to move on after his disastrous fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves, for which Cromwell is blamed.

Part of what makes this book – in fact the whole series – so fascinating is its focus on the nexus between power and the personal; between politics and ambition. There are several key tensions which direct the entire story. Of primary importance is the relationship between Cromwell and King Henry. Henry, born to his position of power, is to some degree Cromwell’s antithesis. Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith and therefore low born in a society of strict class hierarchy, has nevertheless worked hard and achieved a position beside the king which provokes a jealous response from those born to positions of privilege and prestige. But Cromwell’s is a tenuous position, no matter how powerful and entrenched he may appear. In Wolf Hall, Henry is injured during a preparation for a joust and thought dead. For minutes Cromwell feels the spite and ambition of the Boleyns bearing upon him. Fearing he will be killed if the king dies, he has nothing left to do other than instinctively thump the king’s chest. It is a moment of desperation, but it works, and Henry is returned to consciousness. Nevertheless, the thought never leaves Cromwell that his own good fortune rests upon the good graces of the king.

Also of primary importance to the entire series is Henry’s desire to maintain his royal lineage against the machinations of the Courtenays and Poles. Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife in this volume, is Henry’s one relief against disappointment and perceived betrayal of his wives. Jane Seymour gives Henry a son, Edward, before conveniently dying. Her death canonises her in Henry mind, her memory never to be diminished, while Henry’s later marriages are plagued by the same doubts and betrayals of his first two. Catherine Howard, aggressively promoted by her uncle Thomas Howard, would later be executed by Henry for infidelity, much like Anne Boleyn. More immediately, since it is within the purview of Cromwell’s story, is Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The marriage, while a disaster from the start, neatly dramatizes the competing strains between the personal and the public. Forced into a defensive position by King François’ alliance with the Emperor Charles, Henry is forced to abandon his hopes to marry Christina of Denmark, and instead marry Anne of Cleves. With Anne, Henry gains the security of an alliance with her brother, Wilhelm, as well as access to alum, a resource needed for dying clothing and much coveted, denied him after his split with Rome. But the match is doomed from the start. Henry says he dislikes Anne’s looks and finds no attraction in her, although we suspect that this is caused by his instinctive realisation upon first meeting Anne that she might not desire him. The inevitable ensues. As in his marriages to Katherine of Aragorn and Anne Boleyn, Henry begins to question whether the marriage could be legal, due to a pre-contract with another man. As always, Cromwell must negotiate the personal and political minefields of Henry’s heart. Added to this is the blow the mismatch strikes against his own ambitions to reshape the religious landscape. A successful union with Henry’s German wife, a Protestant, might have helped to reform English religious practices.

Interspersed with these key story threads are the stories of rebellion in the north against the closure of monasteries, the threat of Reginald Pole, a political heretic in Europe with key dynastic rivals in England, as well as the fall of others with ideological oppositions. When King Henry accepts John Lambert’s challenge to debate him over religious doctrine, we understand that Lambert has been drawn into a show trial in which he will further incriminate himself. Henry’s role is merely to represent the glory of England and its position, and as such he appears at the meeting before the crowd wearing white from head to foot. Later, Cromwell reflects, …he shone. Like a mirror. Like a light.

Mirrors are a key motif in the novel and it is Henry who is most associated with mirrors and light. Mantel explains that she found the phrase in a letter of Cromwell’s, and she uses it repeatedly in this scene. Cromwell admires Henry’s performance in this debate. Having feared he would be outmatched by Pole, Cromwell judges that Henry, while not aligning with his own beliefs entirely, is the mirror and light of all other kings and princes in Christendom. Cromwell is proud of Henry, of his intellect and judgment. And in a vain musing he even applies the epithet to himself. As he looks about his own room, at his books and possessions that speak of his learning and success, Cromwell imagines himself, the mirror and the light of all the councillors that are in Christendom. It’s a moment that explains Cromwell’s blindness to his encroaching fall, even though he still acknowledges that tenuous bridge upon which his fortunes travel: If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.

Mirrors have many associations in the novel, but they chiefly represent the awe in which Henry may be held. Henry is no longer the physical warrior he was ten years ago, but now wishes to be known as the Mirror of Justice. And when men come to stand before Henry, Henry is a mirror to their worth: A man’s dealings with Henry are a measure of him. They are a mirror to his weaknesses and vanities. Mirrors are also a key to understanding Henry’s vanities. When French merchants visit Henry, they ply their expensive wares by dazzling Henry with light:

The sun has come out, a white haze infiltrating the forenoon. It emboldens the merchants, who hold up their mirrors and walk around the room with them: as they angle them, they catch little off-cuts of the king’s person, and with each caprice of the light, he dazzles himself.
One representation of the Mirror of Naples. Read about the history of this jewel here.

Mirrors reflect a version of the self that is to be projected to the world, and therefore represent the perceived reality of the nexus between the personal and private. The body of the king, for instance, racked with age, weight and injury, is transformed into the puissant leader of church and state: a physical man embodying the concept of king. Cromwell, as he awaits his fate in prison, understands that the self is such a construction. They are rewriting my life, he thinks. Of the charges brought against him, he considers that The mirror presents an alien face, eyes askew, mouth gaping. This is the collapse of the artifice of the public self that must be maintained through money, alliance, the exercise of power and outward show. This is the play of light the king understands. When York falls to the rebels protesting against religious reform in the kingdom, Henry instinctively understands what is required. He must appear in great glory, he asserts, and orders the Mirror of Naples brought to him. The Mirror of Naples was a jewel given to Henry’s sister, Mary, when she married Louis XII of France. After that marriage she married Charles Brandon, the man currently in charge of Henry’s forces against the rebels, to placate him. The jewel is now legendary, since it was probably cut into smaller pieces at some later date and no definite representation can be found of it. But the implication is clear. Henry understands power and how to project it. When York falls it is one of his weakest moments. As he hears of the fall of York, he picks up a cushion embroidered with HA HA – Henricus Rex, Anna Regina – like a mocking laugh that emphasises his despair. But the Mirror is a repudiation not only of failure but a projection of power against the French even at a moment of Henry’s own weakness in England. He always says, when the French ask for it back, ‘Tell François my claim to that country is stronger than his. One day I shall ask for more than jewels.’ In the meantime, Henry intends to blaze before his subjects in the great pearl and diamond that was the treasure of France.

The Mirror and Light concludes what must be one of the greatest historical fictions. It is a sympathetic reimagining of Thomas Cromwell, reprieving him from the opprobrium he sometimes receives for his part in Henry’s rule. Essentially, it is a book that humanises its subjects. It never simplifies Henry or Cromwell, nor does it ever engage in historical partisanship either villainising or worshiping. Jane Seymour can do no wrong in Henry’s eyes, Anne of Cleves can do no right. Yet we understand that both women exist in a world that values them for their reproductive capabilities above their humanity. Henry is sometimes seen as a monster, but Mantel manages to capture some of his dilemma – the responsibility he feels as England’s king and the desires he feels as a man – rather than dismiss his complexity. And Cromwell is humanised more fully in this final volume. We understand his desire to reform England even though we might sympathise with those who suffer as a result of his reforms. Mantel has depicted a man less in control, blinded to an extent by his own rise, yet increasingly meditating upon his past and humble beginnings. He is a more compassionate and thoughtful man in Mantel’s hands than some historians might previously have allowed.

This is a book about power, politics, vanity and the fictions that are projected into the public sphere in order to elide the weaknesses of the private individual. It is a truly great book that never allows the reader’s interest to flag, despite its length, and never falters in quality. In its final moments, it is not a political downfall, but the summation of a life, the meaning we struggle to assert upon our own lives, that is our focus. We are reminded that any pretension to greatness is also mired in the roots of its own making, stretching back into conflict, desire, ambition, childhood, and those seminal moments that set us on our path.

This short film (4:35 minutes) is part of a series on the Tudors. This episode covers the reasons for the fall of Thomas Cromwell.

Henry's Six Wives

Katherine of Aragon

Katherine was married to Henry from 1509 to 1533. However, she was first married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, for five months. She was married to Henry for over 20 years, and during that time Henry had tried to produce a male heir with Katherine. Katherine had several pregnancies. These resulted in one son, Henry Duke of Cornwall, who died after 52 days. She also had Mary who later became queen. Henry’s grounds for divorcing Katherine lay in the question of whether it was lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife and whether their marriage had, in fact, been consummated. The Pope’s refusal to grant dispensation for divorce resulted in England breaking with the Roman church and Henry adopting the role of head of the English church.

Anne Boleyn

Henry desired Anne and hoped to have a male heir with her. Their relationship was the driving force behind Henry’s separation with Katherine. However, Anne only gave Henry a daughter, Elizabeth, who later became queen of England. Henry’s increasing frustration at Anne’s failure to produce a male heir and his growing infatuation with Jane Seymour led to his growing ever more distant from her. The justification for her execution was that she had committed adultery, incest with her brother, and had plotted against the king.

Jane Seymour

Henry met Jane during a visit to the Seymour house at Wolf Hall. Despite some family scandal, Henry fell in love with Jane. Jane had a son, Edward, who later became king of England. She died shortly after. Some believe she was the love of Henry’s life, but she also did not live long enough to fall out of favour with him.

Anne of Cleves

Anne was a German princess whom Harry agreed to marry on the strength of portraits and the good word of his counsellors. The match was a disaster from the start. Henry took an immediate disliking to her and began to speak of divorce from the outset. He felt compelled to marry her for the important military alliance he needed. Financial agreements were reached and Henry soon divorced her.

Catherine Howard

Catherine was the daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who had promoted his niece, Anne Boleyn, in order to strengthen his influence with the crown. Catherine’s relationship with Henry is evident in the latter sections of The Mirror and the Light, although her eventual execution by beheading for adultery is not part of the subject of this book.

Catherine Parr

Catherine Parr appears in The Mirror and the Light as Lady Latimer. She was the wife of John Latimer, third baron Latimer, who came under suspicion of sympathising with the rebellion against the throne. He was never charged, but the family’s reputation suffered as a result. After his death, Catherine eventually renewed her friendship with Mary Tudor, and became Henry’s sixth wife in July 1643. She survived Henry and married Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, in a secret wedding four months after Henry’s death.