Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel

  • By Hilary Mantel
  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • 432 pp.

This sequel to the Booker-winning Wolf Hall follows the tragic end of Anne Boleyn.

“Early September. Five Days. Wolf Hall.” So ends Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, with Thomas Cromwell arranging a respite for himself and his king, Henry VIII. The seat of the Seymour family, Wolf Hall is unseen in the eponymous novel; instead, the title refers to the Latin phrase “man is wolf to man,” an expression apt for Henry’s court.

Anne Boleyn has ascended the throne, promising the king his most desperate desire: a prince. The volatile court, seething with intrigue and mistrust, thrives in Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which begins amid a summer’s idyll at Wolf Hall with the tempest of Anne’s downfall approaching. Henry, on progress and away from his temperamental queen, enjoys the company of Jane Seymour, giving the reader a glimpse of what is to come.

Centered again on Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, Bring Up the Bodies chronicles the nine months leading to Anne’s execution. Henry’s announcement to his Master Secretary is an implicit command: “I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell.” The message is clear: Jane, depicted by Mantel as clever, subversive, and underestimated by her family and the court, must become Henry’s third wife. And Cromwell, who helped elevate Anne, must make this happen.

As in Wolf Hall, Cromwell remains a skilled statesman with a razor-sharp intellect, a keen eye for survival, and the uncanny ability to read the king’s pleasure. Like his former patron Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell shrewdly chooses and mentors future stars of the court while presenting a mild and courteous face to all. He is acutely aware of Henry’s dissatisfaction with Anne, who has failed to provide an heir, and strains to maintain his own position within the always-scheming court. Cromwell must fulfill Henry’s desires lest he fall like Wolsey.

Yet Master Secretary is not entirely a wolf to his fellow man. His approach to the problem of Anne is methodical: Henry prefers that Cromwell find an easy, discreet way to end the marriage. Anne’s pre-contract of marriage to another man emerges as the first exit strategy, but as Cromwell he encounters obstacles to the preferred avenues of ending the marriage, he is forced to dig deeper.

Interviews with Anne’s ladies-in-waiting reveal secrets of the queen’s household and the deceit that lies at the center: Anne herself, whose behavior points to adultery, incest and high treason. “I find I have to deal with a matter I hardly dare speak of,” he says, ruminating on Anne’s relationship with brother George Boleyn, and the evidence against the queen and the five men accused alongside her: George, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, and Mark Smeaton.

Cromwell isn’t above taking delight in the workings of fortune. Though the accused men are plainly doomed, their behavior toward Cromwell is insolent. Smeaton, Anne’s musician, insults Cromwell in Flemish, not realizing that Cromwell understands him. George, Norris, Brereton, and Weston, dismissive of Cromwell’s value as chief minister, are also the men who mocked Wolsey in a grotesque masque staged shortly after his death, depicting his descent to hell. As each man falls to charges of treason, Cromwell ticks off where they held Wolsey when carting him to hell: right, left hindpaw; right, left forepaw. Cromwell takes satisfaction in avenging his mentor, even if his retaliation is incidental.

Mantel’s vivid grasp of history, whittled down to fine logistical details of who was where and when, conveys a sense of urgency and precision. Figures we know through flat biographical details live on Mantel’s page. Anne, though brittle in her queenship, is a longing mother: Her eyes follow Princess Elizabeth when court etiquette sweeps the child away. Henry is less the tyrannical ruler than a stymied husband and father, pressed by foreign and domestic powers on what he considers to be family matters. And Cromwell uses truth, rumor, and scandal to achieve Henry’s ends, yet his private thoughts betray his doubts and misgivings as he executes his duty. Mantel’s Tudor court is less gilded than the bodice-busters of popular fiction. It is government, merciless and firm. Its human pawns react as best they can.

Katherine of Aragon’s death, Anne’s final pregnancy, the intrigues of foreign princes, the maneuverings of the English aristocracy, and Cromwell’s moves to dissolve the monasteries — all the historical events leading up to Anne’s execution — are bookended by the relationships and details of Cromwell’s day-to-day life at home. Though he labors to damn those in Henry’s path, the chief minister becomes human through his care for his son Gregory, his pining for his deceased wife and daughters, and in his management of his household at Austin Friars.

Mantel will end Cromwell’s story with a third book, The Mirror and the Light, detailing Cromwell’s downfall after brokering Henry’s fourth marriage to another Queen Anne: Anne of Cleves, savvy enough to comply when Henry eventually annuls their marriage. Master Secretary will have his own date with the executioners, on which he will certainly retain the dignity and intelligence that he has shown throughout Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Letters written by foreign ambassadors assert that Henry came to miss Cromwell. If Mantel’s Cromwell bears any resemblance to the man these letters describe, it is not difficult to see why.

Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of the Independent.

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