I waited a long time to witness Thomas Cromwell’s death – after all, Mantel’s trilogy concerns a period in which such deaths were public spectacles – and when it finally came to it (that is surely not a spoiler), it was heart-wrenchingly tragic. I’m still experiencing that sense of loss that follows the end of a truly great book. We have inhabited Cromwell’s mind for three weighty novels, and his death is as intimate a moment as anything I’ve read.
Much is made, in this third instalment, of Cromwell’s relationship with his king – Henry comes out of this a weakened man whose need for affirmation reminds us that the Tudors are still a relatively new dynasty to hold the throne. Everywhere are intrigues, plots and double-dealing. Even as Cromwell is elevated and then elevated still further, we’re aware that the fall must come. When it does, this seasoned politician shows little surprise at those who betray him. Mark Rylance is surely going to be marvellous in these final scenes when it comes to be filmed (it’s his voice I’ve been hearing whilst reading for the past two weeks).
Cromwell is all too aware that he is an agent within a volatile period of history, but that the people he must deal with are all too human. ‘These are not days of heroes and giants’ – there is no romanticising of Henry’s reign here. That the country is in a constant state of flux leads to some droll moments, often involving the succession of queens seated besides Henry. Anne Boleyn is only minutes dead as the book opens, and traces of her brief tenure prove difficult to erase quickly.
‘[Fitz] snatches Riche’s hat off and lopes the length of the chamber, throwing it up to the Tudor roses in the ceiling. Is that a stray HA-HA lurking up there? The Lord Chancellor, loyal soul, is squinting up and craning his neck.’
Later, Jane Seymour pleases Henry and Cromwell because she is not Anne Boleyn, but as her own sister remarks whilst the pale and pregnant Jane sits for Holbein, ‘I warrant when he married her … she did not look so much like a mushroom.’ Cromwell’s position enables him to be party to such wry asides and to the King’s confidences, meaning that Mantel’s narrative often enjoys a gossipy tone within the wider sweeps of history. In one moment which made me laugh aloud, Cromwell is horrified to discover that Henry plans to travel in disguise to surprise Wife no. 4.
Mr Wriothesley says, ‘May I ask, what disguise does your Majesty mean to adopt?’ They exchange a glance. When Katherine was queen she was repeatedly ambushed by Robin Hood, or Arcadian shepherds.
Henry is undoubtedly foolish at times, but we’re never in doubt of his readiness to dispatch those who displease. ‘The recently dead’ head up the Cast of Characters at the beginning, and the dead live on in Cromwell’s world, with Wolsey making many appearances, particularly when Cromwell is uneasy about his next move.
There’s a real sense of immediacy to the narrative, not just because of Mantel’s decision to use the present tense throughout but because these Sixteenth Century characters feel so familiar in their concerns. Indeed, some are convinced they are living through the end of days. It’s inevitable, reading it in lockdown, that the plague outbreak which happens during Jane’s confinement feels all too recognisable, as does the King and Queen choosing to live in separate royal residences for fear of contagion.
This is a brilliant conclusion to Thomas Cromwell’s story – Mantel’s recreation of the Tudor world is vivid in its violence and ambitions, and I’m now feeling slightly bereft, missing her version of Cromwell and his household. A third Booker win is surely on the cards – this is by far the best one in the trilogy (and that’s no mean feat).