‘Bring Up the Bodies’: The History-Maker Lost to History

Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second novel in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, feels somewhat slighter than its sly, immersive predecessor, Wolf Hall. Some of that is simply a scope question: Wolf Hall covered more years of Cromwell’s life and the realms, and focused on the more momentous question of whether Henry would really break with Rome. Once we know he’s done that, his struggle to justify divesting himself of another wife is less tense, more quickly accomplished. And Cromwell, who has lost his children, his wife, put the possibility of affairs and remarriages aside in favor of service to the state, is a narrower man. To a certain extent, Bring Up the Bodies is a story about a man who shapes history losing tangible contact with his own life, his place in England.

When the novel begins, Cromwell “has counted the provision carts rolling in; he has seen kitchens thrown into turmoil, and he himself has been down in the grey-green hour before dawn, when the brick ovens are swabbed out ready for the first batch of loaves, as carcasses are spitted, pots set on trivets, poultry plucked and jointed. His uncle was a cook to an archbishop, and as a child he hung about the Lambeth Palace kitchens; he knows this business inside out, and nothing about the king’s comfort must be left to chance.” But by the end of the book, he’s holding himself back, wondering “If he had a ladder he could go up and look at the state of the leads. But that would perhaps not be consonant with his dignity. Master Secretary can do anything he likes, but the Master of the Rolls has to think of his ancient office and what is due to it. Whether, as the king’s Vicegerent in Spirituals, he is allowed to climb about on roofs… who knows?” His visceral urges are subsumed by the history he’s increasingly in charge of creating.

Of course, the maintenance of history is the business of all Englishmen of the class Cromwell has ascended into:

If you would defend England, and he would – for he would take the field himself, his sword in his hand – you must know what England is. In the August heat, he has stood bare-headed by the carved tombs of ancestors, men armoured cap à pie in plate and chain links, their gauntleted hands joined and perched stiffly on their surcoats, their mailed feet resting on stone lions, griffins, greyhounds: stone men, steel men, their soft wives encased beside them like snails in their shells. We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments, leaving them snub-nosed and stub-fingered from the accidents and attrition of time. A tiny dismembered foot (as of a kneeling cherub) emerges from a swathe of drapery; the tip of a severed thumb lies on a carved cushion. ‘We must get our forefathers mended next year,’ the lords of the western counties say: but their shields and supporters, their achievements and bearings, are kept always paint-fresh, and in talk they embellish the deeds of their ancestors, who they were and what they held: the arms my forefather bore at Agincourt, the cup my forefather was given by John of Gaunt his own hand. If in the late wars of York and Lancaster, their fathers and grandfathers picked the wrong side, they keep quiet about it. A generation on, lapses must be forgiven, reputations remade; otherwise England cannot go forward, she will keep spiralling backwards into the dirty past.

But Cromwell’s gained particular power to define England. When Anne Boleyn asserts her permanence, Cromwell’s reaction is to consider is power to rewrite her narrative, as well as changing the condition of her physical body, her estate: “Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history. ” Contemplating his role, Cromwell considers himself:

The overlord of the spaces and the silences, the gaps and the erasures, what is missed or misconstrued or simply mistranslated, as the news slips from English to French and perhaps via Latin to Castilian and the Italian tongues, and through Flanders to the Emperor’s eastern territories, over the borders of the German principalities and out to Bohemia and Hungary and the snowy realms beyond, by merchantmen under sail to Greece and the Levant; to India, where they have never heard of Anne Boleyn, let alone her lovers and her brother; along the silk routes to China where they have never heard of Henry the eighth of that name, or any other Henry, and even the existence of England is to them a dark myth, a place where men have their mouths in their bellies and women can fly, or cats rule the commonwealth and men crouch at mouse holes to catch their dinner.

But Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are fascinating correctives precisely because while Cromwell helped erase Thomas More from the world he lived in, More eclipsed him in history, cast a shadow over Cromwell’s memory. Just like Wolf Hall was a red herring, a novel about Henry’s passion for Anne negated by the final sentence, an itinerary stop at Jane Seymour’s family home, this trilogy is an explanation of why the books need to exist in the first place.