The Mirror & the Light
Looking for an escape from quarantine boredom, but want to minimize your screen time? Then Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final, nearly 800-page volume of her bestselling, Booker-Prize winning, Wolf Hall trilogy, comes at a propitious moment.
Alas, however, those hoping to find in Tudor England a refuge from current events may be disappointed to find how scarily Mantel’s King Henry VIII resembles a more proximate, but equally villainous ruler.
The 16th century British monarch was a bloated, insecure, querulous, narcissist who couldn’t seem to retain members of his government—or wives. Of course, Henry’s councilors and two of his wives who fell from favor also lost their heads, rather than just their positions.
One minister who survived the longest and closest to the king was the wily royal advisor Thomas Cromwell, who for a time was Henry’s closest confidant and fixer, for eight years his chief minister.
Mantel’s first two volumes, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies charted Cromwell’s rise. The Mirror and the Light tracks the apogee of that rise, and his precipitous fall.
As in the trilogy’s first two books, there are interspersed flashbacks to Cromwell’s youth and young adult years, including time as a blacksmith’s helper, a Lambeth Palace kitchen boy, a mercenary in Italy, and a merchant in Belgium.
Mantel’s Cromwell revels in his exalted station, and is not shy about taking credit.
“It is I who tell [Henry] who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill,” Mantel’s Cromwell brags.
Later, he adds:
“Seven years I have stood by [Henry’s] elbow while he sets a course. I found him in low water… bereft of good advice, gnawed by intermittent lusts, frustrated by his advisors, hamstrung by his own laws. I filled his treasury, made his coinage sound; I packed off his old wife and got him a new one of his choosing; while I did this I soothed his temper and told him jokes.”
But his primary function is to be the erratic monarch’s enabler, a formidable task. Since Henry did not come from one of England’s great families, his claim to the throne was tenuous. Numerous nobles viewed him as an illegitimate ruler.
“To them,” Cromwell muses, “Henry Tudor is the son of Welsh horse-thieves: a parvenu, a usurper, a man to whom oaths may be broken.”
Similarly, some in these noble English families bitterly resented Cromwell’s own rise from humble origins, as the son of a brutal, provincial blacksmith, to become the country’s second most powerful, after the king.
As Henry’s secretary and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell was chief among a generation dubbed “new men,” those without title or fortunes, an emerging middle class of merchants and lawyers, whom Henry raised to power and influence. Owing the king everything, they posed no threat to his throne, unlike the old noble families.
“Majesty,” one nobleman says, “is there no stopping these new men?”
“I hope not,” Henry replies, “I rely on them.”
Henry exacerbated his position, courting civil war by splitting with the Catholic Church, when the Vatican refused to accept his divorce from his long-suffering queen, Katherine of Aragon, who could not produce a son and heir. So treasonous plots and rebellions pervaded his reign.
Mantel’s Cromwell reads Machiavelli’s The Prince, comparing Henry—favorably—to the subject of the book, Lorenzo de Medici. “The king has nothing to learn from Niccolo’s book,” Cromwell observes. Yet this knowledge this does not save the Lord Privy Seal from his fatal falling out with Henry.
Bitter nobles and his own envious subordinates engineered Cromwell’s swift and precipitous fall. He received no jury trial. Instead, he faced a process called a “Bill of Attainder,” essentially a rubber stamp trial hurried through Parliament (and specifically prohibited in the U.S. Constitution).
“I cannot complain of the process,” he thinks to himself while being interrogated in the Tower of London. “I have used it myself.”
Shifting to the third person, he reflects that he “has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them.”
In the end, Cromwell fell short in two matters close to King Henry’s heart.
First, the consummate fixer was unable to accomplish the assassination of Catholic Cardinal Reginald Pole, a serious claimant to Henry’s throne, in Pole’s Italian exile.
When his interrogators raise this issue, Cromwell is not surprised.
“He thinks [to himself], now we come to it. This is why Henry faults me. This is where I have failed.”
Second, Cromwell chose Ann of Cleves, a German princess, to be the king’s fourth wife. Henry found her so grossly unattractive that he could not consummate the marriage.
It is difficult to summon much sympathy for Cromwell, an undeniably skilled, but amoral man who was not above using torture and worse. He hanged dissident bishops and abbots, and betrayed—fatally—a guarantee of safe conduct to a rebel leader.
Infamously, Cromwell deftly smoothed the way for Sir Thomas More to the executioner’s block, a role portrayed in both the cable series The Tudors and the BBC’s Wolf Hall.
(More himself tortured and burned heretics, yet the Vatican canonized him, as did Robert Bolton in A Man for all Seasons. Hence, More is much better remembered than Cromwell today.)
Most egregiously, Cromwell engineered the execution of five men almost certainly innocent of the charges of sleeping with the then Queen Anne Boleyn. Her only real crime, like Queen Katherine’s, was her inability to produce a male heir for King Henry.
As Cromwell’s execution nears, victims’ ghosts return to haunt him as he looks around his cell: “He feels he is dragging corpses, shoveling them up.”
While he begs the king for mercy, he is resigned to his fate.
“The law is not an instrument to find out truth,” he says.” It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future.”
Unlike Thomas More, Cromwell died for no cause or conscience.
“Most will not think of me as a martyr for anything, except the great cause of getting on in life.”
It is a testament to Mantel’s monumental historical-novelist skills that her portrait of Cromwell demonstrates the truth that, in fiction, point of view is pivotal. It is hard not to identify with Cromwell, despite her protagonist’s flaws. Mantel imagines Cromwell’s thoughts convincingly.
This is especially true when the narrative is cloaked in deep, detailed, sometimes microscopic historical research (including sumptuous meal menus), coupled with great imagination and elegant, compelling prose.
Lyrical writing abounds, including one of several passages evoking the book’s title: “The sky has become a mirror,” Cromwell thinks while riding one evening with his son, “against which the sun moves: light without shadow, like the light at the beginning of the world.”
Along the way, Mantel provides some fascinating touches: Henry makes the German portraitist Hans Holbein “the King’s Painter.” Henry then dispatches Holbein to Europe with his diplomatic envoys to serve as his wing man at one remove, painting prospective brides.
The prevalent view is that Mantel’s novels are written for “A” students. But for the rest of us, they are well worth the stretch.