Book review: “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

The title for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies comes from a phrase used very late in the novel.

Four courtiers to Henry VIII and his consort Anne Boleyn are being held in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for treason for having sex with the Queen and wishing the King dead. (The Queen herself as well as her brother George will also stand trial on the same charges.)

The order goes to the Tower, “Bring up the bodies.” Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.

This calls to mind the term formerly used in American prisons, “Dead man walking,” which was shouted to alert guards and inmates that a condemned man was being taken down a hallway.

27mantel "Bringing Up the Bodies" by Hilary MantelOf course, technically, none of these six accused is condemned. But the trials are only formalities. The King, wishing to marry his third wife Jane Seymour, wanted Anne removed. She wouldn’t go quietly, and these trials are the result. Death is the only outcome.

Henry’s right-hand man

The one who brought this about is Henry’s right-hand man, Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. And he is the central character of what Mantel has promised will be a trilogy.

The first novel, Wolf Hall, tracks Cromwell’s rise from his rough father’s London blacksmith shop and through an apprenticeship with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey that put him at Henry’s side as an increasingly indispensable adviser and fixer. When I reviewed Wolf Hall in 2009, I wrote:

[I]t’s Cromwell who dominates the scene in this meaty novel. He’s a technocrat with a bit of a soul, more than a little art, and an enviable objectivity. Or is it stoicism?

After reading Bring Up the Bodies, I see more clearly the stoicism at the core of Cromwell’s personality, uncomfortably sharing space with his robust ambition and his sheer joy at solving the fiscal, legal, social and emotional puzzles of governance.

Wolf Hall ends with Thomas More’s decapitation, at the connivance of Anne Boleyn and her greedy family. Bring Up the Bodies ends with Anne and her five putative lovers suffering the same fate.

Keeping Henry happy

Cromwell laid the groundwork for those and other executions as part of his job — keeping Henry happy and content. He carried out such tasks with a ruthlessness and force of personality that over-awed (and deeply angered) other ambitious men and women.

When an aide asks if so many high-ranking people need to die to free the King from Anne, Cromwell explains:

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

That word “enemies”

To rid Henry of Anne and her circle, Cromwell has had to make alliances with leaders of the great families who, earlier, in helping the King to wed Anne, he maneuvered into positions of weakness, on the outside looking in. He considers this as Anne’s execution approaches:

His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.

Of course, his enemies know this. Before and now, Cromwell has been smart enough to win in the multi-dimensional chess board that is Henry’s court.

Yet, there’s that word “enemies.”

His worst potential enemy

Cromwell rose to his position of eminence because his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, had enemies who undercut him and drove him out of office and to his death. Chief among them was Henry.

During an interrogation, one of the dead men walking, George Boleyn, the brother and accused lover of Anne, says to Master Secretary:

“Henry killed his father’s councilors. He killed the Duke of Buckingham. He destroyed the cardinal and harried him to his death, and struck the head off one of Europe’s great scholars. Now he plans to kill his wife and her family and Norris who has been his closest friend. What make you think it will be different with you, that are not the equal of any of these men?”

Cromwell does not really answer Boleyn. There is no answer.

He goes forward into the rest of his life — and into Mantel’s final novel, to be called The Mirror and the Light — knowing that Henry is his best and only friend.

And his worst potential enemy.

Patrick T. Reardon

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