To a hammer everything looks like a nail; and Thomas Cromwell, the formidable servant of Henry VIII, engineer of his desires and of his sequester of the English church from Rome, was seen then and ever since as the most ruthless of hammers. The achievement of Hilary Mantel’s rich and piercing chronicle of Cromwell and the feral English court is to portray him at times as a nail amid a world of hammers.
“Wolf Hall,” the lavishly honored first volume of what will be a trilogy, related Cromwell’s rise from artisan’s son, to protege of the princely Cardinal Wolsey, to successor, after Wolsey’s fall, as Henry’s right hand. As such he helped Henry put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn; and in the teeth of the pope’s prohibition, force the English bishops to recognize the king’s supreme authority over the English church. “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second part of the trilogy, covers a much shorter period. When Henry turns away from Anne after she fails to produce a male heir and becomes obsessed with Jane Seymour, his future third wife, Cromwell organizes Anne’s trial and execution for adultery and treason.
This second volume has a narrower focus than the first. In “Wolf Hall” there are at least two characters who rival Cromwell in their richness and complexity: Wolsey, whose failure to secure the pope’s approval for Henry’s casting aside of Catherine leads to his downfall; and Thomas More, whose refusal to approve the king’s break with Rome leads to his execution. Cromwell’s scenes with each man give us a glimpse of his nail-like qualities: He is devoted to his mentor, and he makes a desperate effort to get More, whom he deeply admires, to avoid execution by pledging loyalty to the king. Then the hammer comes into play. He has no hesitation in replacing the cardinal, and, on behalf of Henry, he sees to More’s beheading.
“Bring Up the Bodies” gives us Cromwell seemingly as nothing but hammer. Knowing that Henry expects him to get rid of Anne he relentlessly compels a host of witnesses to testify to her adulteries with five courtiers, one of them her brother. There are physical threats; more than that, there is his deviously entrapping skill at questioning. Above all, there is the near-Stalinist miasma of the court. Whatever the truth of Anne’s transgressions, Henry — self-willed as a monstrous baby, first sweetly cherishing his toys then in an instant destroying them — wants to be rid of her. The knowledge of his determination terrorizes and shapes the testimony.
In Cromwell’s cold maneuvering and his brilliantly varied scenes with the witnesses, with Anne, and with her accused lovers, we get an unrelievedly darker picture than in “Wolf Hall.” He is harder to take, but this is part of Mantel’s theme. It is the tyranny and fear her protagonist lives in, and the need to protect, secure and, yes, advance, that drives him. On a violently lurching boat the dance to keep one’s balance can be grotesque.
And despite the hammering, the nail shows itself. If Cromwell is an unendingly fascinating figure it is because his lack of scruple in serving his dangerous master is plagued by an unremitting moral lucidity. Time-server to Henry’s crazed clock, Cromwell knows there is real time out there and that it is catching up with him (history and the third part of the trilogy tell us that it will).
Even while conducting the frame-up against Anne, he detests the squalor of what he is engaged in. After all, the cruelties involved in the break with Rome and the beginnings of an English church had involved a larger purpose. In one of the many extraordinary passages that light up Mantel’s story, she has Cromwell, sardonic but anguished as well, think of the ruthless haste and short cuts in his campaign against Anne, and summon up a memory of a beloved daughter, now dead.
“Once he had watched Liz making a silk braid. One end was pinned to the wall and on each finger of her raised hands she was spinning loops of thread, her fingers flying so fast he couldn’t see how it worked. ‘Slow down,’ he said, ‘so I can see how you do it,’ but she’d laughed and said, ‘I can’t slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn’t do it at all.”
You could think of a Tartuffe wringing his hands while using them to perform disgusting things. But this is not Mantel’s design. Terrible times, terrible choices. Her Cromwell is something other than a Tartuffe. He is bound to the wheel on which he turns; and more than that, he turns it. Though we are what we do, some part of us isn’t. Die Gedanken sind frei — thoughts are free — is a German phrase for what we retain even as oppression rules us. Some part of Cromwell — and this is what makes him an extraordinary literary creation — keeps free even as his life presses him into the role of oppressor.Richard Eder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.