Bringing the opulent, brutal Tudor world of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII to glittering life, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have thrilled and delighted readers, critics and prize judges alike. Both novels won the Man Booker Prize and have sold over five million copies across the globe.
Starting today, let us take you through the story so far, introduce you to the main players and explore the key themes.
The Mirror and the Light is out now.
A blacksmith’s son born into a world of poverty and violence, young Thomas Cromwell flees to Europe, developing valuable skills in fighting, finance, business and law. On his return, Cromwell joins the service of Cardinal Wolsey, the Pope’s legate in England and a kind and beloved master to Thomas.
Meanwhile, after twenty years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII has had his eye caught by Anne Boleyn. He insists his current marriage is invalid, due to Katherine having been previously married to his brother, and he should be free to marry Anne, who may have better success at giving him the son he needs. Wolsey takes the case to the Pope and to English ecclesiastical courts, but is frustrated. Henry’s dissatisfaction is clear: Wolsey’s property, goods and the Great Seal of England are confiscated, and he is accused of various crimes but dies, heartbroken, before he can be brought to trial.
Grieving not only his master, but also the recent loss to sweating sickness of his wife and daughters, Cromwell swears his service to the King, and revenge on those who caused and celebrated the death of Wolsey.
Thomas Cranmer, scholar and clergyman, works with Cromwell to legitimise the King’s proposed marriage, while Thomas More persecutes the ‘heretics’ in England who support new religious doctrines. Against the pressures of old noble Papist families and the growing chaos of religious reformation in Europe, Cromwell gently nudges Henry away from the Pope and towards leading England’s church, helped by Anne Boleyn’s own evangelical sympathies. Henry, mostly convinced that his first marriage is annulled, cuts off a weak and ageing Katherine from her supporters and forbids contact between her and their daughter Mary. He marries Anne in a private ceremony in November 1532, and a public ceremony the following spring, when she is already pregnant with their own daughter, Elizabeth.
Cromwell and Anne have an uneasy peace, each feeling that they have been the cause of the other’s success, but equally that each is capable of the other’s downfall – and that many would be happy to see the ruin of either. A young woman, Elizabeth Barton, claims to have powers of prophecy and gains popularity across the country predicting disaster for the King and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell uses the support she receives from the King’s enemies to instead execute those challengers, who include the determinedly martyr-ish Thomas More. Cromwell receives several new titles, becoming the King’s Secretary, a role from which he can extend his authority across government, and Vicegerent in Spirituals, allowing him to reorganise the management and wealth of England’s monasteries.
After only a few years of marriage, it is becoming clear that Anne will not give Henry a son, and he is soured by her sharp temper. The King’s head is turned once more: this time by young Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to both Anne and Katherine, and a quiet, simple gentlewoman. Henry is also tiring of Cromwell, a man to whom he has given so much power, yet who is still unable to give the King the new wife he wants. Henry demands a solution – and Cromwell has the answer. Shortly after the death of Katherine, Queen Anne is charged with treason. She is alleged to have committed adul- tery with a group of Henry’s courtiers and friends, who have plotted to kill the King.
Lady Rochford, Anne’s sister-in-law, hungry for influence and set on destroying her loathed husband, happily gives Cromwell evidence against the Boleyns. Further information – much of it questionable – is collected by Cromwell through spies and the threat of torture. Anne’s own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presides over her trial and joins with the Duke of Suffolk, his rival for power, childhood companion to the King and another enemy of the Queen, in setting the seal on Anne’s demise.
Drawing into Anne’s trial those who previously acted against Wolsey, Cromwell brings down several noblemen who had been close to the King, some of whom recognise too late that their greatest crime has been crossing Thomas Cromwell. Anne is stripped of her title and status as the King’s wife. All of the accused pay with their lives. Henry takes Jane Seymour as his wife only days after Anne’s execution.
Cromwell’s enemies sit in the shadows, in the corner of his mind: the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who has kept in lock-step with him throughout their careers and has been infuriated by Cromwell’s unending promotions; the Pole family, old nobles who believe they should be on the throne and who have momentarily favoured Cromwell while his ambitions match their own; the supporters of the Pope, who blame Cromwell for England’s desertion of the true faith; and countless others who may never even have met him.
As the second book closes, Baron Cromwell knows: ‘There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.’
And so the stage is set for Cromwell’s last beginnings.
The Mirror and the Light is out now.