The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (2020)

28th October 2021

The Mirror and the Light is the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. It follows Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both of which won the Booker Prize for Fiction. The second book ended with the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and its successor tracks the continued rise of Cromwell over the subsequent period until his sudden downfall four years later.

It is difficult to review the book without beginning with a short primer on the historical context. The 1530s constituted a tumultuous period of English history. Although Henry had reigned for over 20 years and – through the birth of Edward to his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537 – had secured a male heir, there was a continual sense of England under threat. In historical terms, the Tudors’ hold on the throne had been relatively recently established – when Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 – and there were many who supported either the Courtney or Pole families as more legitimate claimants, especially the former given its direct line from Edward IV.

This dynastic rivalry was complicated by religious conflict. Henry’s break from Rome to place himself as head of the church in England – which had its origins in his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – was one factor in prompting the Pilgrimage of Grace, a major Catholic revolt in the north from 1536. This was ruthlessly repressed a year later, by which time Cromwell – as Henry’s chief adviser – was overseeing the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the appropriation by the Crown of their buildings and estates.

The threat to England – to Henry – was external as well as internal. The great powers in Europe were headed by Emperor Charles V of Spain and King Francis I of France and, in the period following Jane Seymour’s death 12 days after giving birth to Edward, it was the prospect of a friendly alliance between these two – and the strong possibility of an invasion of England either directly or via Ireland or Scotland – that most concerned Cromwell.

The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was Cromwell’s solution to this political threat, as it brought with it an informal alliance with Anne’s brother, Duke Wilhelm of Guelders, and the north German states. However, when the underlying tensions between France and Spain were resurrected, it was clear that this solution was no longer required. Moreover, the marriage had already proved to be utterly disastrous on other grounds; there seems to be have been a mutual revulsion at the first meeting of Henry and Anne and the union was not consummated. The seeds of Cromwell’s downfall had been sown.

Mantel’s skill is in taking us through these – and other major – events without the whole exercise appearing to be one long history lesson. This is achieved by placing the narrative entirely through the actions, thoughts and spoken words of Cromwell himself. He is in every scene – and at the heart of every scene. His various dialogues – with inter alia Catherine, various ladies-in-waiting, Eustache Chapuys (Charles’s Ambassador in London), Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury), Stephen Gardiner (the Bishop of Winchester), the Duke of Norfolk, (the latter two, Cromwell’s ultimate nemeses) and, of course, Henry – are consistently riveting. There is a dramatic – and, for Cromwell, devastating – encounter with Dorothea Clancey, the illegitimate daughter of his late mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.

This approach leads to a particular quirk in Mantel’s presentational style. It means that when the personal pronoun “he” or “him” appears in the text, it invariably refers to Cromwell, even though the passage in which it occurs might also include other characters to which the pronoun could also apply. I found that this took some getting used to at the beginning of Wolf Hall, though I was prepared for it this time round.

One aspect of this period of English history that I find really interesting is how men of relatively low rank could attain positions of power. Cromwell’s brutal father was a blacksmith and publican in Putney; Wolsey was the son of a butcher in Ipswich. This pair became, in turn, the most significant of Henry’s advisers and reaped the appropriate rewards, Cromwell’s acquisition of properties, wealth and titles appearing to have no limit. But his humble origins were not forgotten by those around him – notably Norfolk – who were driven by frustration and jealousy. Even at the height of his power, he is reminded – and he reminds himself – of them: not prayer nor Bible verse, nor scholarship nor wit, nor grant under seal nor statute law can alter the fact of villain blood.

Although it is not essential to have read the first two parts of the trilogy before wading into the third, it probably helps. Much of the earlier action is re-heated, but with additional information thrown in. For example, we learn more of Cromwell’s early life in Putney – and one dramatic encounter, in particular – as well as the significance of subsequent periods of his life in Florence and Antwerp, the latter containing another major (though fictional) surprise.

More generally, Mantel certainly does not spare us the period detail: the foodstuffs on offer at a banquet, the classical scenes woven into a palace’s tapestries, the nature of the light in the corner of a cell in the Tower of London… Some of this is nicely descriptive and decorative, whilst other examples – the separate public burnings of two religious heretics come to mind – bring their own sense of heightened drama. The result is a lengthy read – 850-plus pages to follow the 1,100 pages in the first two volumes combined – which perhaps suggests that some further editing might have been beneficial, though I would not wish to make too much of this.

As I reached the concluding sections of the book, I thought of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) and Fred Zinnemann’s great film of that book (1973), which is about an assassination attempt on President de Gaulle of France. Although the vast majority of the readership and audience would have known in advance that de Gaulle was not assassinated, both works were still commercial and critical successes. Likewise with The Mirror and the Light: whilst most readers would have been aware of Cromwell’s fate, this does not detract from the drama associated with its telling.

At his downfall, the principal charge – amongst several – laid against Cromwell was that of treason. The evidence for this could be threadbare – a misinterpreted comment about the king’s health or expected longevity might suffice, as Cromwell himself had employed against others in the past. Knowing this in advance, the reader can indulge in the detective work of identifying which of his conversations – including those held in private with supposedly close confidants – might be held against him later. I noted one particular example which, at the time, I did think rather indiscrete on his part: sure enough, it is reproduced for him during his interrogation in the Tower.

Part of our engagement with this part of the narrative relates to the behaviours of those around Cromwell. We wish to learn which of those who have benefited from his support and patronage over the years stand by him and, by contrast, which are turned by the promises and/or threats made by Norfolk and Gardiner. The duplicity of one or two can be confidently guessed in advance. For example, Richard Riche – who, as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, was responsible for estimating the wealth of the individual religious establishments being turned over to the Crown – had his cards marked in dramatic fashion over 60 years ago by Robert Bolt for denouncing Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1960).

I found that one of the most poignant changing of sides was perhaps that of one of the ladies-in-waiting, who had been a regular supplier of information to Cromwell over a long period. After seeing her earnestly conversing with Norfolk, Cromwell tries to speak to her but she swings away from him, haughty… useless. He thinks, I’ve lost her. When did that happen? But the most significant loss of support – and the only one that ultimately mattered, of course – was that of Henry. It was for others to see that this would, one day, be inevitable: “What will you do when one day Henry turns on you?” asked Ambassador Chapuys of Cromwell at the zenith of his powers; he could only reply that he would “arm himself with patience and leave the rest to God”.

We are also concerned about Cromwell’s family and household. We care about what will happen to his son Gregory, his nephew Richard and his long-standing retainer and chief clerk Rafe Sadler. Mantel does not disappoint. In addition to the abbreviated trees of the Tudor, Courtney and Pole families and the extensive listing of the dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, there is an excellent postscript by way of an Author’s Note outlining the fates of the other characters in whom we have invested some considerable time.

Mantel reminds us that history is a dynamic: it occurred before Cromwell’s time in office and it continued afterwards. The Duke of Norfolk provides a touchstone for this. His father is remembered as Flodden Norfolk in recognition of his leadership of the English army that slaughtered the Scots (and their king) in the battle of 1513. And it is another of Norfolk’s nieces (Anne Boleyn having been one) – the teenage and ill-fated Katherine Howard – whom he is moving into position to attract Henry’s attention on the departure of Anne of Cleves. Further in the background – a peripheral character at this stage – is Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife, who would outlive Henry. (The Author’s Note informs us that Thomas Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, was the great grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, the later Lord Protector).

And, not least, there are Henry’s successors on the throne of England – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in order of accession, if not of age. (Elizabeth is a ginger-haired 6-year old at the end of the book). The political machinations and bloody religious strife would continue during each of their reigns, of course. In turn, each monarch would require his or her trusted advisers.

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