History’s monsters — and ours

Saga of Henry VIII reverberates today, even in America

A period etching of King Henry VIII.
A period etching of King Henry VIII.

Hilary Mantel’s coup in winning her second Man Booker Prize last week speaks not only to her distinction as a novelist but also to the broad resonance of her subject. The Booker Prize is Britain’s most prestigious literary award, but Mantel, only the third writer to win twice, has struck deep chords in the United States, too. At the center of the 2009 winner “Wolf Hall,” and of this year’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” is the drastic figure of Thomas Cromwell, the intimate adviser to Henry VIII. Literature can illuminate history; Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell brings us into the era in which our own sensibility was forged, and hints at dangers that still lurk today.

Anne Boleyn

The saga of King Henry — his successive wives and the mortal oaths imposed on subjects to uphold them — involves a lethal mix of power and desire, of politics and religion. Because Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church over divorce just as the Protestant Reformation was rending Christendom on the European continent, the rupture marks a cultural watershed in the English-speaking world. For the subsequent British settlement in “New England,” and the nation it begot, the consequences were huge.

Henry VIII was, strictly speaking, not a Protestant. But when the Act of Supremacy in 1534 made him the head of the Church of England, with the power to enforce orthodoxy as the crown defined it, the breach was not only with Rome but also with those influenced by continental reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Eventually, Christians seeking to purify the faith (therefore “Puritans”) would set themselves against the throne. Some of them, crossing the ocean, would carry, like a virus, a rigid division between the saved and the damned. Ultimately, this virus infected the American imagination with an over-simple moralism — good guys versus bad guys — that still rages.

Thomas Cromwell


In “Wolf Hall,” Mantel dramatizes the start of Henry’s revolution against the universal faith, showing his alienation from wife Catherine of Aragon and his growing infatuation with Anne Boleyn. “Bring Up the Bodies” tracks Anne’s fall. Cromwell, mainly an observer of intrigue in the first novel, creates it in the second. He ruthlessly manipulates Boleyn and her backers into the executioner’s corner. Boleyn is replaced by Jane Seymour, a turn that was forecast, perhaps, by the first title “Wolf Hall,” the Seymour family’s manor house. Wolves are apex predators. And alas, poor Jane, so was Henry.

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Cromwell’s perceptions define the novels, and Mantel’s achievement is to render the man with enormous sympathy, even while showing him to be a monster. Indeed, the entire world Mantel portrays is monstrous. Men and women of the nobility, the monarchy, and the church are all prepared to stake their lives on the game they are playing. Today, losers in power struggles get golden parachutes (Rebekah Brooks, central to the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, received $11 million). But in the Tudor court, they went to the Tower of London, and their severed heads decorated London Bridge.

Rarely have the risks and whims of absolute tyranny been rendered so forcefully. Joining state power to a personality cult built on divine right is a formula for mayhem. Mantel’s work implicitly points toward the bloody century that followed Henry’s transgressions, a rolling catastrophe that climaxed when Thomas Cromwell’s descendant, the genocidal Oliver, saw to the beheading of the king himself.

Hilary Mantel’s work both highlights and runs counter to the moral dichotomizing that wracked England and branded America — and still torments the world. The Taliban has nothing on the Tudors, and the Tudors belong to us.

Yet the multi-dimensionality of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is breathtaking — a low-born figure who makes it to the top, a crosser of boundaries, a man alert to the destructive whims of a tyrant. Though at home with the ambiguities of claims to the truth, Cromwell is ruthless in defending the truth claim of his liege. More clearly than anyone, Cromwell sees the spiraling self-propulsion of unchecked violence. By the end of “Bring Up the Bodies,” he seems to be the master of violence, yet Cromwell is too shrewd to imagine that he will escape the forces he has helped unleash. Mantel’s third volume will tell that story. A literary achievement to anticipate, but also a further exploration of our contemporary condition.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.