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The downfall of Cromwell – The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Part 4 of 4)

In the previous three posts, I looked deeper into the third and last part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. Previously, I had written about the length and structure of the novel. In this final part of the four-part review, I discuss the climax and the resolution of The Mirror and the Light.

The downfall of Cromwell

Which single event in the tumultuous life of “Cromwell” ultimately results in his death by execution?

Set against the background of England’s breakaway from the Roman Catholic church and the formation of the Church of England with the English king as the head, “Henry VIII”, “Cromwell” and the king’s other advisors manipulate the interpretation of church liturgy and English law so as to allow “Henry VIII” to enter into four marriages, and to end three of them, none with the approval of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope.

This period, the English Reformation, is one of the most important in the history of England and Europe.

Historically, “…the English Reformation took place in 16th-century England when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were, in part, associated with the wider European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that affected the practise of Christianity in western and central Europe. Causes included the invention of the printing press, increased circulation of the Bible and the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among scholars, the upper and middle classes and readers in general. The phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accommodated itself. Based on Henry VIII’s desire for an annulment of his marriage (first requested of Pope Clement VII in 1527), the English Reformation began as more of a political affair than a theological dispute.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Queens and successors

Thomas Cromwell is recognized as being one of the foremost supporters and advancers of the English Reformation and the political, legal, social and theological decisions about it, and also of the on-the-ground implementation of the new Protestant system. In the novel, the focus is more about the personal preferences of the king, and the politics of marriages between royal houses, than about religion. However, there are interesting events in the novel during which religious leaders try to justify their Protestantism, or vice versa. There is even a debate with the king himself, which nevertheless ends in a gruesome death for the monk who dares oppose the monarch.

But all the discourses and machinations are ultimately intended to open the way for the king to marry who he wants, rather than who he can.

The wives of King Henry VIII


Spouses of King Henry VIII
1. Catherine of Aragon​​ (married 1509; annulled 1533, died 1536 of cancer);​
2. Anne Boleyn​​ (married 1533; annulled 1536, died 1536, beheaded )​;
3. Jane Seymour​​ (married 1536; died 1537 after childbirth);
4. Anne of Cleves ​​(married 1540; annulled 1540, died 1557 of cancer)​;
5. Catherine Howard​​ (married 1540; died 1542, beheaded)​;
6. Catherine Parr ​​(married 1543, outlived Henry VIII, died 1548 after childbirth)
Note: 1540 is also the year of Thomas Cromwell’s death. At that time Henry VIII had married Catherine Howard, but after her death, Henry had only one more wife.

Before the events in The Mirror and the Light, the history of Henry VIII and his love life makes for reading that is stranger than fiction. (Many films have been made about it – The Private Life of Henry VIII, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne of the Thousand Days, etc.)

Henry VIII had an apparently happy and long marriage to Catharine of Aragon, his first wife. By 1525, Henry VIII had become dissatisfied because his marriage to Catherine had produced no surviving sons, only a daughter, the future Mary I of England. She was heir presumptive at a time when there was no established precedent for a woman to be on the throne. Time was ticking for Henry to beget a male heir, and at the same time, he became infatuated with Anne Boleyn. He sought to have the marriage with Catherine annulled, but when Pope Clement VII refused do so, Henry defied him by assuming supremacy over religion in England and supporting Protestantism. In 1533 their marriage was declared invalid and Henry married Anne Boleyn in that same year.

Catherine, however, refused to accept Henry as supreme head of the Church in England (stubborn woman, a committed Roman Catholic – but you have to admire her courage), and continued to consider herself the king’s rightful wife and queen, so Henry banished her. Unfortunately, Anne Boleyn was also unable to give him a son and suffered many miscarriages.

When The Mirror and the Light begins, “Henry” becomes disenchanted with “Anne Boleyn”. Again “Cromwell” has to scramble to find a legal basis to let the king remarry without opposition. To legally annul the marriage to “Anne Boleyn”, she is put on trial found guilty of, amongst others, witchcraft and adultery, and is then beheaded. Her trial is arranged and overseen by “Cromwell”, in his line of duty. The king gets his way and all is well. “Cromwell” then has to arrange the marriage of the king to “Jane Seymour“, wife no. 3.

This seems to go better, but only a year after marrying “Henry VIII”, “Jane Seymour” dies of postnatal complications less than two weeks after the birth of her only child, the king’s legitimate son, who becomes “King Edward VI”. At the time in which the novel takes place, “Edward VI” is just three years old, and none of the role players can know that after his death at an early age, his successor, Queen Mary I, reversed many of the Protestant reforms of Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI.

Mary I was another staunch Roman Catholic. Her father, the king, might have forced her, under the threat of banishment, to declare that she had renounced Roman Catholicism and accepted him as head of the Church of England, but as soon as she got the chance, she reverted. Henry VIII was indeed very unfortunate with his offspring.

All the king wants is a son

King Henry had another legitimate child, Mary I, but no legitimate and male heir who survived him, other than Edward VI. Edward VI did not live long either and died aged 15. All in all, it is a mess of personal relationships, depicted in the novel as more tangled and delicate than a spider’s web made of glass. And in the middle of the mess is “Thomas Cromwell”, having to negotiate his way through the heightened emotions, passions and hunger for power.

Henry VIII’s illegitimate, unacknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy, died aged 17. Mantel depicts “Fitzroy” as a sickly, whining, entitled person who is really not likeable and is showing signs of the same irrationality that his father often exhibited later in life. “Fitzroy” likes to rant at “Cromwell” and make demands about his status. He really does think he would be a better king than his father. As the king’s woes increase, and his health worsens, he becomes dangerously unstable. Dangerous to those around him, that is.

Edward VI of England (born 12 October 1537, Hampton Court Palace, Middlesex, England; died 6 July 1553 (aged 15), Greenwich Palace, England. In this portrait he is dressed as the Prince of Wales, and is posed in the Queen’s Drawing Room, Windsor Castle. He wears the Prince of Wales’s feathers on his hat, and there is a Prince of Wales crown on the pendant jewel he wears around his neck. It was painted in 1546, which means that in the picture he is supposed to be 9 years old. It is attributed to the artist William Scrots. (Location: Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

The final problematic marriage

In the novel, at this stage in the history of “Thomas Cromwell” and the Tudors, the focus is on the urgent need for a male successor. “Cromwell” is burdened with finding “Henry VIII” another, fourth wife, but one who must be Protestant, a virgin, attractive, fertile (very important!), and a useful political match. That marriage is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This leads to “Cromwell’s” fall from grace, arrest, trial and death.

The marriage in 1540 to “Anne of Clevesis a useful political tool, and “Anne” might have been Protestant, a virgin, a symbol of the useful alliance with the wealthy Protestant nobility of western Germany, and able to have children, but she is only passably attractive in a certain light, being scarred from smallpox and rather dour-looking. The painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, had apparently made her look too good in the portrait he had done of her, which Henry VIII had commissioned to see the “chattel” he is about to acquire.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves, circa 1539, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on parchment, mounted on canvas. Alas, she was not even as good-looking as in the painting, where she already looks lumpish and dull. (Source: Louvre Museum, Paris, France)

In the quotation below, Mantel describes the king’s comments to “Cromwell” after he had first set eyes on his prospective bride, “Anne of Cleves”. This episode in the novel is actually amusing, since it is a comedy of errors: The king wants to surprise his new bride-to-be, and on a whim, thinly disguises himself – luckily not in his favourite Turkish costume – and rides like the devil to where “Anne’s” entourage is staying after their arrival on the shores of England. Knowing that this first meeting is critical and must be stage-managed, “Cromwell” sends one of his team riding even faster than the king to forewarn the lady.

Unfortunately, though she notes that he will be arriving early, she does nothing to prepare herself, and when he enters her room, she ignores him because why would the king of England look like he is wearing fancy dress, and moreover, who is he if he is so ugly? The man she was told she will marry is tall, blonde, fit and handsome. This one is not, though he was when he was young.

She realizes, after he addresses her, that this must be the king, Henry VIII, and turns around to welcome him sweetly, but cannot disguise the disappointment she feels, and the king immediately sees this as plain as day on her face. From their first meeting, their relationship is doomed. (And this incident is fact, recorded in the actual court documents. Awkward stuff.)

“‘No, you have not seen her,’ the king says. ‘You have been at the mercy of reports, as have I, so you cannot be blamed. But when I encountered her yesterday, I tell you, I had much ado to master myself. A great outlandish bonnet with wings sticking out either side of her head – and with her height, and stiff as she is – I thought to myself, she looks like the Cornhill Maypole. I believe she had painted her mouth, which if true is a filthy thing.’
‘Her attire can be changed, sir.’
‘Her complexion is sallow. When I think of Jane, so white and clear, a pearl.’
Golden lights waver on the ceiling. They play on the crimson plaster roses, the green leaves between, the blood-washed thorns. ‘It is the journey,’ he says. ‘All those tedious miles with a baggage train, then the delays, and the voyage.'”

The Mirror and the Light, p. 728

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

“Henry” cannot get himself to carry out his conjugal duties because from the very first, he finds “Anne” ugly and unappealing, and she finds him unattractive as well (imagine what a physical wreck he was by then, much older than her, with his leg with the rotting wound, and his obesity).

Historians have speculated that the marriage remained unconsummated mainly because of King Henry’s many illnesses.

The king’s illnesses

Henry VIII’s documented illnesses and health problems included varicose ulcers on his legs, which would not heal and were excruciatingly painful, and for which there was no treatment; migraines from having had a lance pierce his forehead above his eye during a jousting accident (!); probably diabetes from enormous and rapid weight gain, and presumed brain damage from another jousting accident, when he stopped breathing was unconscious for two hours. He also suffered from malaria, as did many others, for which there was neither a cure nor vaccinations. And there is strong evidence that he suffered from an inherited disease, McLeod syndrome (MLS), a progressive neurological disorder. In short, the king was unhealthy, but then, those days, so was almost everyone.

In the novel, the king’s health acts as a major and frequent catalyst. (And there are cringeworthy passages of his doctors carrying off his poop for analysis in a jewelled container, like it is the holy grail.) People are promoted or executed depending on the king’s mood, which depends on his health that day. Sore leg? Sore butt? Off with her head. No luck in the bedroom the previous night? It must be her fault, not his!

Modern interpretations of his medical condition confirm the descriptions that Mantel gives in the novel. Regarding the varicose ulcers, a modern-day medical paper quotes court records as saying:

“By now his ulcers appear to have been bilateral, purulent and seeping, and Henry himself wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, excusing himself from travelling and confessing: ‘to be frank with you, which you must keep to yourself, a humour has fallen into our legs and our physicians advise us not to go far in the heat of the day’. Transient superficial healing of the fistulous communications between abscess cavities and skin inevitably led to episodes of sepsis and bouts of fever: ‘and for ten to twelve days the humours which had no outlet were like to have stifled him, so that he was sometime without speaking, black in the face and in great danger’ (Castillon to Montmorency from the English Court).”

500 years later: Henry VIII, leg ulcers and the course of history, by C.R. Chalmers and E.J. Chaloner, in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2009 Dec 1; 102(12): 514–517. Rtrvd. 2021-03-16)

Eeuww. But you get the idea. No wonder he was so bad in bed. Can you sleep with the king while holding your nose? You would’ve had to. Also remember people had really bad teeth and bad breath in those days, plus they did not bath frequently.

Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, “Cromwell”, the court and the ladies-in-waiting can only guess what happens, or does not happen, in the royal bed at night, but the marriage is annulled that same year. The King, for all his efforts to get a male heir from a suitable member of royalty, actually only wants to bed cute, sexy girls with nice, milky complexions, who are much younger than him. For this “bad” marriage, “Henry” blames “Cromwell”. After that, it is downhill all the way.

This slide towards “Cromwell’s” end occurs in many small increments, or death by a thousand cuts, before the big cut of beheading, and this contributes to the length of this part of the trilogy.

And ultimately…

Can I fault this work by Dame Hilary Mary Mantel, DBE, FRSL, twice winner of the Booker Prize? I cannot, since, from a literary perspective, there is no fault to be found, and if it is unusually long, its length is justified. I look at this book lying on the desk next to my computer and I know I will put it in my bookcase, and a year from now I will take it out and read it again, and every word will be as good as before, and I will be again be immersed into the world of Thomas Cromwell, 15th and 16th century England, and the court of Henry VIII.

What I was left with, after having lived in “Cromwell’s” world for so many weeks, are thoughts such as;

Is this what comes from speaking truth to power?
Who gave these people the right to change religious practices that were centuries old?
What would’ve happened if Henry VIII had not eradicated the monks and the monasteries in England?
What if Cromwell had not had the new English Bible printed in Italy and distributed to the masses?
What if Cromwell had not found arguments to legally and ethically approve of annulment and divorce for the king?
How did the king’s bad health influence his decisions?

If a good novel makes you remember it, think further, and connects you with other books or ideas, then this one is very good. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
In fact, now that I’ve read the whole story of the Tudors, courtesy of Hilary Mantel, I look at the British royal family quite differently. I remind myself that I am looking at Queen Elizabeth II, who is in the line of descent, from king to queen to king to queen, etc., all the way from Henry VIII.


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