The characters are the same, the locations are the same, the dangerous politics are the same. Only the ascendency of Anne Boleyn is in reverse as she fails to provide Henry VIII with a male heir. The king’s wandering eye has also settled on the young Jane Seymour, a member of the queen’s household.
After the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in his failure of securing Papal dispensation of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell spent Wolf Hall finding a way to legitimise Henry and Anne’s union. In Bring Up the Bodies, he must rewrite history to find a way to annul it.
“What if . . . there is some flaw in my marriage to Anne, some impediment, something displeasing to Almighty God?” asks Henry. He asked the same question in Wolf Hall of Katherine.
It’s up to Cromwell to find that impediment. Failure is not an option. He’s only too aware of the outcome: there are several high profile bodies in the first book who questioned and failed Henry, including Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor Thomas More and Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher.
Cromwell appropriates gossip, slander and a little of his own revenge to ascertain the queen’s guilt of adultery and incest (and, it being royal infidelity, treason). After just three years of marriage, Anne was brought to the block and executed in May 1536 at the Tower of London. A few days earlier, her brother George Boleyn, courtiers Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Henry Norris and musician Mark Smeaton were all beheaded as lovers of the queen.
Whether they were guilty is moot. As far as Cromwell was concerned, they were all guilty of something. He also held a personal grudge against the four aristocrats and their part in the downfall of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. As the most powerful man in the kingdom aside from Henry, he simply manipulated gossip, coincidences, reported conversations and petty jealousies to ‘prove’ Anne’s infidelity and with whom.
During the occasional down time of proving the queen’s guilt, we continue to see into the domestic life of Cromwell – by now a much wealthier man than in Wolf Hall. He buys property cheaply (mainly from the dissolution of the monasteries) but without time to visit – he is investing in his and son Gregory’s future. He supports and promotes his prodigies. He continues, wisely, to play the field and keep friends and foes alike as close to his chest as possible.
Yet, as riveting as Bring Up the Bodies is, the animated vitality of Wolf Hall is slightly less in evidence. It’s a minor caveat – both novels are superior works of literature. Seen through the eyes of Cromwell, we are given a Machiavellian history lesson par excellence that is as relevant today as it was almost 500 years ago. It is Mantel’s language and grasp on contemporary universalism that make both books so appealing – this is no historian recanting factual evidence mixed with a few suppositions. Instead, Mantel puts history into the words of today.
“In March, Parliament knocks back his [Cromwell] new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field. England needs roads, forts, harbours, bridges. Men need work. It’s a shame to see them begging their bread, when honest labour could keep the realm secure. Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?
“But parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order? … It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy. And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality; well, are there not hangmen enough?”
Wolf Hall ended with the execution of Thomas More. Bring Up the Bodies sees Anne Boleyn similarly dispatched and Jane Seymour wife number three. Cromwell himself appears to be immoveable, having successfully navigated the minefield of the task. But more history is to follow – there’s another three wives for Henry and any number of bodies. Cromwell is Mantel’s focus and while Bring Up Your Bodies does not quite match the freshness of its prequel, there’s at least one more novel in the series that will be a major literary event on its publication. Mantel could become the first author to win the Man Booker Prize three times.