Beware hubris – or how Thomas Cromwell was brought down

Review (part 2): Vivien Horler

The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate/ Jonathan Ball)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) in the miniseries based on the first two volumes in the Wolf Hall trilogy.

There is something bizarrely prosaic about the Wikipedia entry for Thomas Cromwell.

“Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, KG, PC was an English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540, when he was beheaded on orders of the king. Born: 1485, Putney, London. Died July 28, 1540, London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Cause of death: Decapitation.

Tower Hamlets? Well, it was certainly the Tower. Decapitation? That would do it.

And he wasn’t the actual first Earl of Essex – that honour went to Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in 1144. His line went extinct, and in 1199 the title was recreated, with Geoffrey Fitzpeter becoming the 1st Earl of Essex. He died in 1213.

More than 200 years later one Henry Bourchier became 1st Earl of Essex, dying in 1483 and leaving the title of 2nd Earl of his son, also Henry, who died in 1540. He had no heir, and so Henry VIII recreated the title of 1st Earl for his trusted minister Thomas Cromwell, who kept it for just three months or so before he was beheaded.

There is still an earl of Essex, the 11th,  Paul de Vere Capell, born in 1944 . If I have read the family tree right – and I may not – he appears to have a cousin called Kevin.

At least Capell, a retired schoolmaster, and Kevin, are likely to keep their heads. There was no such certainty in Cromwell’s time, and he certainly helped made it possible for Henry VIII to execute many enemies and perceived heretics, as well as, famously, his second wife Anne Boleyn. Henry also had his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, beheaded, but that was nearly 18 months after Cromwell’s death and presumably cannot be laid at his door.

Everything at the Tudor court depended on the favour of the king, and if the by now middle-aged king was smart, petulant, greedy, suspicious, often in pain from an ulcerated leg, and had something close to absolute power, it behoved one to keep in with him.

This, Cromwell thought, he had done. He knew the king was impulsive, but he believed he, Cromwell, was indispensible both at court and in the running of the kingdom. And as the son of a Putney blacksmith and brewer rose in the ranks at court, from secretary to the king to Lord Privy Seal and Earl of Essex, he created many enemies. And in the end they came for him.

He had thought he had the king’s protection. Just over a year before he was killed, the king wonders if Cromwell might leave him to serve the Emperor in Europe. But Cromwell tells him no. “What would I want with the Emperor, were he emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”

Henry replies: “You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you… It is for show. So they think we are divided. But take it in good part. Whatever you hear, at home or abroad, I repose my faith in you.”

Well, not for long.

The Mirror & the Light is a work of fiction, and this conversation is made up. But this third volume in the marvellous Wolf Hall trilogy brings alive the machinations in Henry’s court, the people, the food, the brilliance of the dress and palaces. Mantel has immersed herself in the period, but she dispenses her knowledge lightly.

Cromwell was a ruthless man, both for himself and for his king, but Mantel makes us admire and even like him. The sense of dread that lies over the end of the book, with a dignified yet betrayed Cromwell in the Tower, expecting to die yet hoping the king might yet relent, is palpable.

This is a fitting climax to the first two volumes, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I read it with enormous admiration. My only regret is that with the death of Cromwell, Mantel is presumably not going to fictionalise what happened next, with Henry’s brief marriage to Katherine Howard, and his final marriage to Katherine Parr, a woman who in terms of this novel, Cromwell fancied.

It’s been a bit like a wonderful soapy and it’s ended. History tells us what happened next, but we want it in Mantel’s words. Maybe with the ghost of Cromwell in the hereafter, looking down – or up – on the last years of Henry’s reign? I guess not.




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