(5547 words. Link to printable version.)
The choice of death over compromise is the surest proof against any charge of hypocrisy. Whatever your feelings about the underlying creed, anyone willing to die for a principle is going to make an indelible impression on you, especially if you happen to be the executioner. In addition to the role he played in England’s break with the Catholic church and King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell is known historically for two dubious accomplishments: securing the conviction of Thomas More for treason after he refused to swear an oath endorsing the king’s supremacy over the pope, and confiscating the lands and holdings of England’s monasteries to fill the country’s royal coffers. As imagined by Hilary Mantel in her ingeniously textured and darkly captivating novel Wolf Hall, Cromwell despises monastics, “that parasitic class of men” (41), as he refers to them in the sequel, along with ascetic theologians like More—whose habit of wearing a horse hair undershirt to irritate his flesh does as much to irritate Cromwell—for their unworldliness and cruelty, but most of all for their corruption and hypocrisy. It’s no wonder then that, in Mantel’s telling, it’s having to condemn More to martyrdom that ultimately undoes Cromwell, or rather further propels him along a path toward undoing himself.
In Bring up the Bodies, the second of three projected novels about Cromwell, Mantel lets us listen in on the thoughts of this man who can’t escape what he’s done, who in a sense was made by the crimes he’s committed, lifted from the lowliest origins to serve as the king’s chief secretary, and thus unable to extricate himself from the position that will make it necessary for him to commit still more and still more horrific crimes. Tellingly, we find that what preoccupies him most in his rare moments of solitude is the nature of the relationship between words and the reality they’re meant to represent. Early on, we see him at his daily tasks.
He returns to his dispatches. Plague in town and city … the king is always fearful of infection … Letters from foreign rulers, wishing to know if it is true that Henry is planning to cut off the heads of all his bishops. Certainly not, he notes, we have excellent bishops now, all of them comfortable to the king’s wishes, all of them recognizing him as head of the church in England; besides, what an uncivil question! How dare they imply that the King of England should account for himself to any foreign power? How dare they impugn his sovereign judgment? Bishop Fisher, it is true, is dead, and Thomas More, but Henry’s treatment of them, before they drove him to an extremity, was mild to a fault; if they had not evinced a traitorous stubbornness, they would be alive now, alive like you and me.
He has written a lot of these letters, since July. He doesn’t sound wholly convincing, even to himself; he finds himself repeating the same points, rather than advancing the argument into new territory. He needs new phrases. (28)
Cromwell is not one to persecute himself for past deeds—“Once you have chosen a course, you should not apologize for it” (401), he later admonishes one of his protégés—but he’s also a decent enough man to be disturbed—“alive like you and me”—by his complicity in the horrors he’s being made to answer for so unconvincingly.
|Thomas Cromwell in BBC's "Wolf Hall"|
Beleaguered by the demands of his position, anxious over the affairs of state, harried by the king’s hangers on, and, only months after More’s beheading, beginning to feel his age—“That’s the bleat of the man of fifty,” he chastises himself at one point, “I used to. I can’t now” (68)—Cromwell in the opening chapters of Bring up the Bodies struggles with a weary fatalism that would have been foreign to the man he was just a season prior: “It will always be like this, he thinks. It will go on being like this. Advent, Lent, Whitsuntide” (134). On an early fall morning at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, he reflects on how,
The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone, Thomas More’s daughter has got his head back off London Bridge and is keeping it, God knows, in a dish or a bowl, and saying her prayers to it. He is not the same man he was last year, and he doesn’t acknowledge that man’s feelings; he is starting afresh, always new thoughts, new feelings. (29-30)
Those new thoughts often hinge on how he might remove certain men from the king’s privy chamber, the ones who frequently impede to his access and thwart his agendas. For reasons that remain obscure for some time, Cromwell also confides in Edward Seymour (the older brother of the future queen Jane) that he fears he’s losing favor with the present queen, Anne Boleyn. “I feel my head wobble on my shoulders when she stares at me hard,” he says (21). Before long, however, the king will be giving him a directive that affords him an opportunity to address both of these issues. But pursuing that opportunity will exact a heavy toll.
With ever more to lose as his wealth accumulates and his status increases, Cromwell is keenly aware of his dependence on the king, not just for his continuing ascent, but for his survival. As he says to his nephew Richard, “How many men can say, as I must, ‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing” (176). “You fear he will turn on you?” his friend Chapuy, the ambassador from Spain, puts to him some time later. Cromwell responds, “He will, I suppose. One day.”
Sometimes he wakes in the night and thinks of it. There are courtiers who have honourably retired. He can think of instances. Of course, it is the other kind that loom larger, if you are wakeful around midnight. (223)
The stakes thus set, we watch as this man who’s far from squeamish reveals himself capable of going through with deeds that make even him queasy—and we can’t help being sickened both with him and alongside him. Henry, we learn, has already grown tired of Anne, who seems as incapable as Catherine of producing a male heir, and it will fall to Cromwell to find some way to once more get an official sanction for a divorce.
As he continues to serve as accountant, lawyer, diplomat, enforcer, and sometimes friend to the king, while at the same time investigating rumors of the queen’s adultery in the hope of using it as grounds for pushing her aside, he keeps being reminded of a scene described in Wolf Hall, one that features what will become a haunting symbol, a touchstone marking the distance from his former self. Sometime after his daughter Grace followed her mother Lizzie and her older sister Anne in succumbing to the sweating sickness that was ravaging England at the time, Cromwell remembers a Christmas pageant she performed in.
The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers. He himself had contrived it. The other little girls were dowdy goose creatures, and their wings fell off if they caught them on the corners of the stable. But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there’s no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen. (161)
Those angel wings, which he keeps in a closet along with all the Christmas decorations, including a silver star one of his adopted boys once mistook for a torture device, appear again in Bring up the Bodies, only this time it’s a different little girl donning them. Having gathered all his loved ones to celebrate at his home,
he turns his eyes to the child dressed as an angel: it is Rafe’s step-daughter, the elder child of his wife Helen. She is wearing the peacock wings he made long ago for Grace.
Long ago? It is not ten years, not nearly ten. The feathers’ eyes gleam; the day is dark, but banks of candles pick out threads of gold, the scarlet splash of holly berries bound on the wall, the points of the silver star. (118)
Just as when his daughter was wearing the wings, we see that Cromwell can’t look at them without being dazzled by some play of light. Rafe, whom Cromwell took on as a ward at age seven and mentored into adulthood, is one of many beneficiaries of his big-heartedness. When he married Helen in secret, for love, dashing any hope of a more financially advantageous match, Cromwell was initially exasperated with him, but he eventually came around, showing that he cared for his surrogate son’s happiness above all else. Now, though he’s allowing Rafe’s own adopted child to play the role of granddaughter, the wings still speak to him of the family he’s lost.
He takes the child to a looking glass so she can see her wings. Her steps are tentative, she is in awe at herself. Mirrored, the peacock eyes speak to him. Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you. (119)
And you can hear the whisper of those wings beating throughout the novel, as again and again Cromwell lights on feathers and wings as the apt metaphor to convey his thoughts.
|Peacock Feather Angel Wings in BBC's "Wolf Hall"|
But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more. (568)
Once he’s found an opportunity to sin, Cromwell’s modus operandi is to seal his advantage by acting quickly. In the midst of the proceedings in Bring up the Bodies to end the king’s second marriage, he reminisces about an earlier time in his life: “In those days he did things suddenly: not without calculation, not without care, but once his mind was made up he was swift to move. And he is still the same man. As his opponents will find” (367). And so he forges ahead with what he’s determined is necessary based on his inveterately pragmatic and worldly principles. “You pick your prince,” as he once explained to his son Gregory. You pursue your interests. Whatever you can justify through argument or accounting you should be able to live with.
The king having declared his desire to be rid of Anne, Cromwell moves forward with his plans, going back to settle the books, as it were, only after each successive stage has been accomplished. Along the way, he’s shocked to find that those books are getting harder and harder to balance. “I did not know what I would find, when I began,” he says to his friend Thomas Cranmer. “That is the only reason I could do it, because I was surprised at every turn” (385). The opening to free the king from his marriage comes when Mark, a pompous young courtier, boasts too publicly of his special relationship with the queen. Cromwell interrogates him, setting in motion a scandal that results in the conviction for adultery and treason of not only Mark but four other men as well, including the two members of the privy chamber most troublesome to Cromwell, along with the queen’s own brother. All these men's lives, along with Anne’s reign as queen, end on the executioner’s block.
At no point during the interrogations that ensue after Mark’s do any of the men either confess their own guilt or name any other guilty parties. In the wake of the trials, Cromwell’s household is understandably shaken; there were already rumors among the populace about how Cromwell tampered with the jury that convicted More. When his son voices his doubts about whether justice was actually served, he thinks:
When Gregory says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did they do it?” But when he says, “Are they guilty?” he means, “Did the court find them so?” The lawyer’s world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted. This was not one: the phrases jostled and frotted, nudged and spilled, ugly in content and ugly in form. The design against Anne is unhallowed in its gestation, untimely in its delivery, a mass of tissue born shapeless; it waited to be licked into shape as a bear cub is licked by its mother. You nourished it, but you did not know what you fed: who would have thought of Mark confessing, or of Anne acting in every respect like an oppressed and guilty woman with a weight of sin upon her? (369)
So Cromwell is left with another argument in need of better phrases. There is an intense, complicated compulsion that overtakes you about midway through Bring up the Bodies, sweeping you vertiginously along with the action, until finally leaving you with the same sense it does Cromwell, that all the important developments are faits accompli long before you know quite what to make of them. It is a mark of Mantel’s mastery that the tide of interrogations, washed over truths, and blotted out lives, as abruptly as it forms, as devastatingly as it crashes, never outpaces the sense of felt reality, never strains the structure of the plot to the point of forming faults in the nightmarish edifice of her fictional world.
If we weren’t privy to Cromwell’s private thoughts, if we weren’t gestured toward feelings he himself refuses to acknowledge, or even if his story simply picked up closer to the interrogations he permeates with threats of torture and a more drawn out execution, closer to the trial that turns on the quickness of men to imagine into reality their darkest fears about women—if we’d never, for instance, learned about the angel wings—our view of him would be much closer to the one handed down through history: Henry VIII’s mercenary pit bull. Standing in judgement of him would be a much simpler, much more comfortable matter. So what are we to make of this narrative that so closely tracks the compromising of a decent but morally complicated man, whose philosophy we approve, but only up to a point, a brilliant strategist and savvy fixer whose rise from obscurity we cheer, a conniving opportunist but also a generous and fiercely loyal patron—how are we to respond to witnessing him ruining men’s lives, bringing down the queen, consigning them all to death, all in the service of a capriciously cruel and demoniacally narcissistic king? Is it a mere cautionary tale about the subtle and stepwise descent into the darkness all men—all humans—feel drawn to as they struggle to balance morality against necessity, truth against self-preservation?
He finds he cannot think of the dying men at all. Into his mind instead strays the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the veil of rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe. The cardinal when he fell had no persecutor more relentless than Thomas More. Yet, he thinks, I did not hate him. I exercised my skills to the utmost to persuade him to reconcile with the king. And I thought I would win him, I really thought I would, for he was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for. In the end, he was his own murderer. He wrote and wrote and he talked and talked, then suddenly at a stroke he cancelled himself. If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man. (371)
In other words, More may have deserved to die for what he did to Wolsey, but Cromwell tried to save him anyway, a feat he thought he might be able to accomplish because More was full of himself, but in the end he decided he wanted to die; the responsibility lies not with Cromwell but with More himself. He needs new phrases indeed.
In the days leading up to More’s conviction, though, we saw that Cromwell, far from being content to lay responsibility at the feet of his favorite foil, agonized over what he ultimately decided had to be done. He even tried to tell Henry that prosecuting More might not be a good idea because the case would not be easy to win. “Do I retain you for what is easy?” the king responds in a fury (585). Henry retains Cromwell because he’s adept at formulating strategies, and just as adept at implementing them. Cromwell comes up with words and plans, and then he turns them into reality. There’s an amazing passage that comes before More’s trial in Wolf Hall, when Cromwell is laid up with fever, listening to the priests and doctors milling about his house, and it lays bare what his mind can’t help but busy itself doing:
They talk about his heart; he overhears them. He feels they should not: the book of my heart is a private book, it is not an order book left on the counter for any passing clerk to scrawl in. They give him a draft to swallow. Shortly afterward he returns to his ledgers. The lines keep slipping and the figures intermingling and as soon as he has totaled up one column the total unmakes itself and all sense is subtracted. But he keeps trying and trying and adding and adding, until the poison or the healing draft loosens its grip on him and he wakes. The pages of the ledgers are still before his eyes. Butts thinks he is resting as ordered, but in the privacy of his mind little stick figures with arms and legs of ink climb out of the ledgers and walk about. They are carrying firewood in for the kitchen range, but the venison that is trussed to butcher turns back into deer, who rub themselves in innocence on the bark of trees. The songbirds for the fricassee refeather themselves, hopping back onto the branches not yet cut for firewood, and the honey for basting has gone back to the bee, and the bee has gone back to the hive. (568-9)
In his delirium, he goes on balancing the books, breathing life into words, and guarding the book of his own heart. Near the end of Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell contemplates how rumors and innuendos about the queen’s myriad and incestuous infidelities brought her down, and concludes, “Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe” (383).
|Cromwell in BBC version of "Wolf Hall"|
The magic taking place in Cromwell’s fever dream undergoes an ominous reversal in one of the interrogation scenes in Bring up the Bodies. Francis Weston already knows he will be found guilty of adultery with the queen, and he laments to Cromwell that he’ll never have the chance to go through with his plan to change his ways and make amends for his sins when he is older. Then, just when he seems on the verge of saying something that would irrevocably seal his conviction, Cromwell abruptly stands up and leaves the room, suffering from what we assume is an attack of conscience.
He does not know what caused him to break off from Weston and walk out. Perhaps it was when the boy said “forty-five or fifty.” As if, past mid-life, there is a second childhood, a new phase of innocence. It touched him, perhaps, the simplicity of it. Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean. (341)
Cromwell is himself fifty when the action of the plot takes place, and far from entering a new phase of innocence he’s seeing how the magic of his words, which once brought dead things to life, is being used again and again to snuff living things bloodily out of existence.
There is one character accused of carrying on an affair with the queen whom Cromwell manages to save. Thomas Wyatt’s father Henry, a man Cromwell held in high regard, gave him a special charge to watch over his son, to serve as a second father to him. But Cromwell has a profound admiration for Wyatt that goes well beyond any promise made to his father. In particular, Cromwell is in awe of Wyatt’s facility with what he calls “poet’s truth,” whereby what he writes is neither true, in the sense of corresponding to actual events, or false, because it gestures toward some greater principle. As Cromwell thinks to himself,
When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. (348)
This passage, an intensely revealing if also enigmatic stream of thought, shows Cromwell momentarily incapable of understanding what poet’s truth could mean. He can’t avoid thinking of it as a species of deception, a trick like the ones used in political or romantic competition. But he begins with feathers and ends with the metaphor of an angel. The scene ends with him ruminating about supposedly true stories of angels visiting men; he never rounds back to finish the idea.
It’s when he undertakes his perfunctory interrogation of Wyatt in the Tower that we get the least evasive accounting of what Cromwell currently thinks of himself—including a chapter in the book of his heart that will go unwritten (at least not until Mantel comes around). After Wyatt jokingly responds to his question about whether he’s comfortable by asking if he means in body or soul, Cromwell, not missing a beat, says “I only answer for bodies.”
“Nothing makes you falter,” Wyatt says. He says it with a reluctant admiration that is close to dread. But he, Cromwell, thinks, I did falter but no one knows it, reports have not gone abroad. Wyatt did not see me walk away from Weston’s interrogation. Wyatt did not see me when Anne asked me what I believed in my heart.
He rests his eyes on the prisoner, he takes his seat. He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” 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 shake 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. (352)
This passage gives us an interesting twist on Cromwell’s habit of saying something and then thinking the opposite. Perhaps uncomfortable himself in the presence of a more sincere if equally clever man, he embraces the very sin he so loathes in the monastics he’s been such a great scourge to—but is it his sin or only his enemy’s?—before going on to steel himself so he can persevere in spite of his misgivings. It’s noteworthy too that, while many of Cromwell’s closest aides recognize the four men under investigation as the same ones who performed in a play mocking his mentor Cardinal Wolsey soon after his death, only two of them have really been causing him any problems. And Mark certainly isn’t a threat. You can’t help wondering whenever Cromwell dwells on these men’s past insults if he’s really being driven by vengeance or if he’s just trying to quiet his conscience.
In the book’s final passages, we see that exacting his revenge hasn’t brought him any closer to his old master. Going through his papers, he recalls how when he first came across a piece of writing from the cardinal after his death “his heart had clenched small and he had to put down his pen till the spasm of grief passed.” After that initial shock, though, he seems to have gotten some solace from coming across these vestiges.
He has grown used to these encounters, but tonight, as he flicks over the leaf and sees the cardinal’s writing, it is strange to him, as if some trick, perhaps a trick of the light, has altered the letter forms. The hand could be that of a stranger, of a creditor or a debtor you have dealt with just this quarter and don’t know well; it could be that of some humble clerk, taking dictation from his master. (406)
Of course, it’s not the letters that have altered.
The most viciously ironic development in the plot is that Mark only begins to name names after being locked in the closet where all Cromwell’s Christmas decorations are stored. Terrified at first by the sight of the silver star, he later mistakes the brush of the peacock feathers as the touch of a ghost. He screams, and when he’s released he can’t get the names out quickly enough, fearing he may be locked in with the ghost again. “I shall have to burn the peacock wings,” Cromwell thinks after he’s heard what happened (289). But, in the wake of the trials and executions, his view of them is altered.
When the wings are shaken out of their linen bag he stretches the fabric, holds it up to the light and sees that the bag is slit. He understands how the feathers crept out and stroked the dead man’s face. He sees that the wings are shabby, as if nibbled, and the glowing eyes dulled. They are tawdry things after all, not worth setting store by.
Having forced himself to believe the worst of the accusations against Anne, and having acted on his belief, the way he views his own past undergoes a tragic transformation as well. Now he fears that Grace, given the plainness of his wife and his own rough features, was suspiciously pretty.
He says to Johane, his wife’s sister, “Do you think Lizzie ever had to do with another man? I mean, while we were married?”
Johane is shocked. “Whatever put that into your head? Put it right out again.”
He tries to do that. Be he cannot escape the feeling that Grace has slipped further from him. She was dead before she could be painted or drawn. She lived and left no trace. Her clothes and her cloth ball and her wooden baby in a smock are long ago passed to other children. (405)
His wife had said “there’s no end to you, is there?” But Cromwell has in fact written in his own hand the ending for the story of the man he was then.
This theme of compromised morality woven together with the mystery of language’s transformative ties to the world may suggest to some that the power of Bring up the Bodies comes from some embedded lesson about our imperiled integrity or lost humanity. But it’s a mistake to treat a narrative solely, or even predominantly, as a matter of meaning. “A statute is written to entrap meaning,” as Cromwell reasons, “a poem to escape it.” And so it is with stories, or else why would we ever want to read them again after first arriving at the point. It’s not the lesson of a story that pulls us in, but the texture of lived experience, the compelling illusions of a life’s myriad moral dilemmas, and the expert evocations of a human presence that provokes us toward some feeling, be it sympathy and admiration, or disappointment and disgust—or some fiendish farrago of all four. At the points where Cromwell’s story is most disturbing, the hardest to bear reading, we continue on, not to mark out the mistakes we should ourselves avoid, but out of loyalty, a fierce partisanship, the sense that of all these competing persons he’s the one we want to see through to the end, if only because we know him best, if only because we remain ever hopeful that somehow he will be redeemed, taken back in hand by his better angels, delivered back into grace.
Also read: What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?
And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration
And: The Criminal Sublime: Walter White's Brutally Plausible Journey to the Heart of Darkness in Breaking Bad
Also read: What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?
And: Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration
And: The Criminal Sublime: Walter White's Brutally Plausible Journey to the Heart of Darkness in Breaking Bad