In hardback, this is a big book; a physical monster. Don’t take it on holiday – it will use up most of your baggage allowance; and it’s also brilliant.
I almost add ‘of course’ to the end of that sentence; as if such a thing is inevitable from Hilary Mantel, twice Booker Prize winner; though nothing is – a truth which King Henry’s advisers knew well. As Thomas Cromwell’s nemesis, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, says to him, ‘Thomas, we both know what it is to serve the king. We know it is impossible. The question is: who can best endure the impossibility?’
This is the third book in the trilogy which started with Wolf Hall; and it describes the slow dismantlement of a man who appeared too savvy and too smart for destruction.
We see here, for perhaps the first time, the sheer weariness of Cromwell; and the exhausting game of staying ahead of the pack. He has every title under the sun, a large property portfolio and quantities of cash; but what he doesn’t have is history. He is a brewer’s son from Putney taking on the landed classes. He must work a great deal harder than them and be a great deal more competent – and still he will lose.
He rose from nothing because of his competence. While the old families look for power and war, Cromwell attends to the nation’s accounts. (And yes, also his own.) He was an early technocrat who advised Henry against war, because ‘it never pays’. This is sensible advice for English kings but unfamiliar. Kings compete for territory; it’s what they do. It’s what men do; it’s what Henry does.
But Cromwell, perhaps foolishly, says ‘Why?’
In a way, the Cromwell who Mantel offers us is too wise for his master; the brewer’s son outgrows his king. He was executed on charges of disloyalty, though he was loyal to a fault – always aware of the country’s jeopardy, with Spain and France prowling with menace across the water.
Whether it’s the monasteries or marriage, he tries always to effect what the king desires – not easy when the king himself doesn’t know. Here, for instance, is a ruler always looking for a wife other than the one he has; so all match-makers beware. It won’t end well.
But Cromwell also has his own vision for the health of the nation, which makes him vulnerable. It is his support for the king’s marriage to Anna of Cleves, and the Protestant alliance she brings, which ultimately does for him.
He has a religious position when religious positions are risky. He supports the Protestant cause, as England eases uncomfortably away from Rome – more a prolonged lurch, this way and that, a grunting and vicious tug-of-war, which keeps stakes busy with burning for years.
And when his religious inclinations coincide with a marriage Henry cannot endure – his first meeting with Anna is a brilliantly described disaster – it is the beginning of the end. Norfolk and Gardiner, allies only in their hatred of the Putney upstart, move fast.
Throughout this trilogy, Cromwell is revealed as a remarkable operator, both ruthless and kind; and Mantel suggests too kind at times. He knew how to bring people down; but only in the cause of the king. In his own cause, he is more lenient, more trusting. He could have destroyed Norfolk when he was out of favour but chose not to; so Norfolk destroyed him.
And Cromwell is increasingly tired. He has worked twice as hard as everyone else; and when he can’t be everywhere, his commitments so complex and widespread, others, like worms, find ways inside the king’s entitled ear.
‘Servants of the king fight games they cannot win,’ says one of his friends. ‘The best hope is an exhausted draw.’ No one knows “what next?”’
The aim for them all is to survive until evening at Greenwich, Hampton Court, Whitehall or wherever; and that is enough. Tomorrow may bring a very different wind. And as Montague said, ‘The king never made a man but he destroyed him again.’
So when the hour comes, like Christ’s arrest in the garden, Cromwell is caught out; so rapid a fall, achieved in a matter of minutes – and only three months after being made an earl.
But then, with King Henry – God-fearing and self-pitying – all safety is provisional. And those who Thomas had helped, those he had been loyal to, now turn on him; absurd charges lead to his imprisonment and beheading. (Norfolk and Gardiner are disappointed. They’d have preferred burning, a heretic’s death.)
There is no justice. But why expect it? As Cromwell reflects in his cell in the Tower of London, ‘the law is not an instrument to find out the truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future.’ He had done it to others; and now it was done to him.
I found it a difficult read at the end. Mantel has created a wonderful character in Thomas Cromwell; one I had huge sympathy for. It was not easy watching him destroyed by lesser men.
But this is a wonderful book, both character and history so keenly observed; strong on mortality; bleak and funny about politics and increasingly inhabited by ghosts from Cromwell’s past.
I leave the last word to the author, as she puts down this stunning trilogy and reflects on the nature of public office. ‘It is not written that great men shall be happy men. It is nowhere recorded that the rewards of public office include a quiet mind.’