The King and He

I have just finished Hilary Mantell’s conclusion of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the He of this title) a saga that began with Wolf Hall, proceeded through Bring Up the Bodies, and ended with The Mirror and the Light, and I find I’m going to miss old Tom. For several years I have hovered at his elbow while he managed England under the wayward, thin-skinned and self-indulgent eye of Henry VIII. I liked to imagine, back in the months when I first began this journey, that we were in no danger from the likes of this Henry, but finishing the trilogy, as I did, during the waning months of the Trump administration, I see that I was wrong. No, Trump cannot have anyone suspected of disloyalty beheaded, but there are other ways to amputate dissent within the palace.

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, and in many ways serves as a bridge between medieval England and its brief Renaissance under Elizabeth I. His ways were medieval ways complete with divine right of kings; his preferences were, however, a bit more transitional: love of art and music and a pronounced distaste for war.

At the outset of the 16th Century, the princes of Europe no more regarded England than they regarded [some] soup-land, where they had never set foot. Cromwell is musing about his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, who, he says, made his country count. The aftermath of Henry’s divorce, both from Katherine and from Rome, nearly lost England her continued relevance. Lord Cromwell, says Mantel, gets up nearly every day – Austin Friars, his rooms at court, his house at Stepney, the Rolls House at Chancery Lane – and he tries to keep this from happening.

Mantel’s three novels chronicling his attempts not only make for fascinating reading on their own, they are also a primer in the art of politics, in hard decisions, in the compromises that keep nations, monarchies, and administrations afloat.

This is a work of fiction, and as such the words put into the mouths of the principles originate in large part in Mantel’s own imagination, but this imagination is informed, one cannot help but believe, by complete immersion in documents, letters, and histories of the times so that conversations like this one come across as entirely believable:

“Anne was our good lady,” Hugh [Latimer] said. “So we thought. We were much misled.”
“I heard her last confession,” Cranmer says.
“Yes,” he [Cromwell] says. “And?”
“Cromwell, you do not expect me to tell you what she said?”
“No. But I thought your face might tell me.”
Cranmer turns away.
Latimer says, “Confession is not a sacrament. Show me where Christ ordained it.”
Cranmer says, “You will not get the king to agree.”
Henry likes to utter his sin and be forgiven. He is sincerely sorry, he will not do it again. And in this case perhaps he will not. The temptation to cut off your wife’s head does not arise every year.

In this last novel it seems that Cromwell has set himself three distinct tasks: one is to keep the lady Mary (Bloody Mary) alive; a second is to ensure that the English church preserve its independence from Rome; and a third is that the English throne is protected against the machinations of both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France. As it happens, it is these very efforts that lead to his eventual downfall as Cromwell’s enemies manipulate the King’s interpretation of them. Cromwell himself seems to be aware of his own danger, as he weaves through the inevitable political snares. Knowing, as we do, the eventual outcome, it becomes a harrowing journey for the reader who travels always at Cromwell’s elbow, unable or unwilling to believe that the end is truly near.

And to that end, his efforts to save some from burning are used against him as proofs that he favored papistry and rebellion.

He [Cromwell] thinks, perhaps Cranmer and I, perhaps if we pleaded on our knees for him to stop the burning…But Cranmer is in the country. In times past, the king’s women might have appealed to him, for one of their own sex. But the Lady Mary has been warned stiffly, by him [Cromwell], not to speak for any rebel, and the queen (Jane Seymour) he supposes has been told the same by her brother.

He leans against the wall in the privy chamber. He thinks, do not falter, Master Secretary. Have no qualms, my lord Privy Seal; Baron Cromwell, do not fail. You must not soften now.

Donald Trump never had a Cromwell. One wonders if such a person could have survived him this far. Could anyone ever have kept the ship of state on an even keel as the increasingly bloated man who would be king lumbered from side to side in search of relevance? Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of the man who did manage, for a very long time, to keep England relatively prosperous and stable through some extremely rough seas is a master class in the kind of statecraft that had been necessary under the equally damaging narcissism of Henry VIII in a much more dangerous age. And a reminder, if we need one, of where we have been and where it is never impossible to go again.