Bring up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the 2nd book in what is going to be a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister/Master Secretary to Henry VIII. While you could read Bring up the Bodies without reading Wolf Hall, I wouldn’t recommend it. Wolf Hall won both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award and was absolutely riveting and brilliant. It was the sort of book that I looked forward to reading every day and was sorry when it ended. Certainly, the life and times of Henry VIII provide rich fodder for novelists, but Mantel’s work focuses on Thomas Cromwell about whom little is known despite his great influence and power. It’s a new perspective on an era that has been covered so often in literature.
Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, who found work as a mercenary soldier and as a banker/moneylender in Europe before returning to England and working in the law for his patron Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall focuses on this first period of his life, which involves Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the execution of Thomas More, Wolsey’s falling into disfavor with Henry and his death, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell is a rich and powerful man, close to the king, but given his common status, he is not welcomed into the King’s circle of noblemen. Feared, revered, hated and sought out by turns, Cromwell uses his intelligence (both his intellect and the information that his spies pick up on others) to serve the king and to protect his own family and retainers. In Bring Up the Bodies, the king is dealing with the aftermath of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his deteriorating marriage to Anne Boleyn and his attraction to Jane Seymour. Mantel is skillful at drawing the political rivalries at court and managing a large caste of characters, remaining faithful to the historical record but also using a vivid imagination to fill in critical gaps.
I am surprised at how much I find myself liking Cromwell. Mantel makes him a tough, self-made man who is intelligent, practical and often charitable. This is a man who has loved, been married, had children and seen them die of plague. His household includes young men learning law and politics alongside him and servants who are loyal and who esteem him. Cromwell is not driven by ideology or religious zeal so much as the desire to enrich the king and England and to ensure political stability in the realm. One of his ideas for Parliament was a sort of works project program — tax the rich to create jobs for the poor building and fixing roads, bridges, walls and harbors. By improving the country’s infrastructure, revenue from trade would increase and by keeping the poor working, fed and sheltered, crime would decrease and prosperity would result.
On the other hand, Cromwell was not the sort of man you would want as an enemy, and he was driven by what we might call reasons of state or realpolitik — the ends justified the means when it came to the king’s desires. The case of Anne Boleyn illustrates the point. The facts surrounding the case of Anne Boleyn and her supposed infidelities (including the charge of incest with her brother) are few. She and four others were put on trial and found guilty of treason and were executed shortly thereafter. Mantel doesn’t make it clear to the reader whether Anne and her “lovers” actually committed the acts for which they were charged, and the point is that for Cromwell, it really didn’t matter. What mattered was that the king was done with Anne and wanted to be rid of her. As Mantel describes it: “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” Anne had many enemies at court (including Cromwell, who remembered her role in the downfall of Wolsey), and those enemies were powerful nobles who had supported Katherine and her daughter Mary’s rights. Anne’s enemies also detest Cromwell, but they see that he is the man who can bring her down and so they form an alliance with him. But Cromwell, the savvy politician, understands that, “They want him as deep in the matter as they can contrive, and their own hands hidden, so that if later the king expresses any regret or questions the haste with which things were done, it is Cromwell and not they who will suffer.”
Even if you don’t know your Tudor history, you can guess that ultimately Cromwell will meet the same fate as those he helped send to the executioner’s block. I look forward to reading Mantel’s third book to see how she imagines the details of Cromwell’s downfall. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are great novels for lovers of historical fiction, particularly anything to do with the Tudor period.
[Edit: This book is also available as an an audiobook from Macmillan Audio, narrated by Simon Vance (MP3 clip) --mswas]