Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall historical fiction series.
Anne Boleyn has triumphed. Despite the fact that Henry VIII’s wife Katherine is still alive and that current canon law offers few plausible legal paths to divorce, Anne is now Henry’s queen. Many of the authorities in European Christendom do not admit the legality of the arrangement. Thanks to the hard work of professional sycophants like Thomas Cromwell, and executioners eager to deal with naysayers, England’s do. That’s enough for Anne.
At least for the moment.
To be fair, many in England as are skeptical as their continental cousins of the legitimacy of Henry and Anne’s marriage. As long as Anne holds Henry’s heart, the consequences of open skepticism are likely to be fatal. Let the aristocracy and the masses hate Anne so long as their fear of Henry’s wrath is greater than their hate.
Anne’s ascent was predicated on the assumption that she would do what Katherine could not: provide Henry VIII with a legitimate male heir. The Tudors have provided England with a half a century of peace. Nobody wants a return to the Wars of the Roses. An unchallenged succession requires a boy, which Anne has failed to deliver.
Henry’s marriage to Anne established the principle that a king or at least this king could replace his wives according to need and convenience. With Anne proving a disappointment, it does not take Henry long to fixate on Jane Seymour. Anne is now surplus to needs.
Divorce from Katherine was facilitated by legal issues that, however dubious they may have been, do not exist for the marriage to Anne. Some other path to freedom must be found. The task of ridding Henry of his unwanted second wife falls to Thomas Cromwell. It is a job Cromwell executes with ruthless, brutal, efficiency.
Cromwell and Anne are similar, in that both have risen above the station others think appropriate, thanks to Henry’s faith in their utility. This makes them simultaneously powerful and extremely vulnerable. The moment they become superfluous to need, their lives are likely to be quite short. Cromwell, at least, is well aware of this, having seen his former master fall from a very great height when no longer useful to Henry.
The English legal system of this time is essentially a game of Calvinball whose central principle is “keep Henry happy.” Given that his life depends on it, Cromwell’s diligence in finding ways, however flimsy, to justify delivering whatever Henry demands this week, even if it directly contradicts that he wanted last week, is unsurprising. His ability to keep a straight face is impressive.
The author skillfully presents Cromwell as a sympathetic figure, someone doing his best with the hand he was dealt. I appreciate the craft that went into this novel. Alas, Cromwell’s best involves a lot of trumped-up charges, manufactured evidence, and off-handed cruelty doled out to keep an autocrat happy. He is only remarkable in the degree of his success. Lamentably, I’d still like almost every character in the book to die. Since the novel is set in 1536, this is a case where I get my way.