Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, was an extraordinary achievement, a work of historical and artistic integrity that nonetheless managed to be a hit across genders, generations, and sensibilities. I know a twentysomething male worshipper of Thomas Bernhard who loves it, and I know a retired female acolyte of Jodi Picoult who loves it just as much. The book appeared midway through the high-rated run of Showtime’s The Tudors, which grappled lustily albeit ahistorically with the same soapy crisis—Henry VIII’s break with Rome and divorce from Katherine of Aragon in favor of the swiftly disfavored Anne Boleyn—and which, at its gloriously stupid best, suggested a remake of Showgirls set at the Palace of Whitehall. In the Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, which cleared the room of heaving bosoms and bore no taint of faux-Tudor cheese, Mantel provided the highbrow but equally addictive alternative version of the King’s Great Matter.
She also provided a central, sustaining surprise in her choice of sympathetic protagonist: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister for eight pivotal years, typically portrayed as a beady-eyed menace in works ranging from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait to Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. (On The Tudors, Cromwell says things like, “You shameless friar! You’ll be sewn in a sack and thrown into the Thames if you don’t speedily hold your tongue!”) Mantel took this agreed-upon villain and made him into an unlikely hero, much as she did with Robespierre in her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992). And she made Cromwell something of an underdog: In Wolf Hall’s arresting first pages, the teenage Thomas’s father beats him nearly to death in a London street.
The boy escapes and never looks back; “he walks around the docks saying to people, do you know where there’s a war just now?” A few pages and twenty-seven years later—during which time Cromwell acquires an ad hoc education abroad as a soldier and business agent—this child of a hard-drinking blacksmith is middle-aged, nearly rich, patriarch of a beautiful family, and mentee of Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York. Cromwell is a worldly chameleon, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” His archrival of sorts is Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr of A Man for All Seasons, whom Mantel portrays in Wolf Hall as a pious prig in love with torturing himself and others, be they wife or heretic. Mantel’s Cromwell, on the other hand, is at once formidable and lovable, a self-made emblem of an ascendant, meritocratic capitalism, a Machiavellian teddy bear. He is a superhero without a kryptonite, or so it seems for a while. He presided over the dissolution of the monasteries, he defied the papacy, he gathered the evidence needed to behead Sir Thomas More, and he really loves his wife and kids.
Mantel creates an idealized, yet extremely persuasive, portrait of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, but toward novel’s end she begins to pick and scratch at this portrait, exposing it to the elements. After Cromwell has lost his wife and two daughters and become chief executor in Henry’s reign of terror, his spirit begins to falter, then harden. Cromwell commits many realpolitik sins in Wolf Hall—collateral damage is to be expected in a war on feudalism and medieval superstition. But in the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which transpires over the year following the execution of More, there is little to mitigate Cromwell’s chief task, which is to arrange for the king’s wife to be killed at his behest, along with whomever else might be convenient to eliminate. At this point in the Cromwell story, the historical record starts to constrict—it becomes more stark, more like fate—which leaves Mantel with somewhat fewer opportunities for revision and reinvention. The novel’s pace is a slow creep of ghoulish inevitability. The rot seeps and spreads, and Cromwell gains in menace what he loses in sympathy. Death, and death foretold, is everywhere.
The second installment of Mantel’s planned trilogy on Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies opens two months after the conclusion of Wolf Hall, in September 1535, on a cataclysmic note: “His children are falling from the sky.” Cromwell has named falcons for his dead daughters, Anne and Grace, and his dead wife, Liz. Anne and Grace died of plague in Wolf Hall, as did their mother. Now, the falcons, stand-ins for Cromwell’s lost loved ones,
drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws. . . . These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.
In the scorched-earth afterlife that Mantel conjures for them, Cromwell’s sweet girls have become angels of death, powered by pitiless animal instinct. The same, Mantel implies, has happened to Cromwell, who’s beyond accustomed to suffering in both his trade and his home life. People are portrayed as animals again and again in Bring Up the Bodies, which has a whiff of the abattoir even in its lightest moments. Unable to hold Henry’s full attention in conversation, Cromwell observes that “the king is wearing an expression he has seen before, though on beast, rather than man. He looks stunned, like a veal calf knocked on the head by the butcher.” Henry has grown tired of Anne and her sluggish womb, and the reader can already see the doomed queen gliding down the corral path toward the conveyor belt:
Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.
Like many sequels, Bring Up the Bodies has its share of recap and slightly unwieldy exposition. (“All the turmoil, the scandal, to make the second marriage, and still. Still Henry has no son to follow him.”) Events that Mantel used to foreshadow doom in Wolf Hall erupt into present-tense horror. Lute player Mark Smeaton’s amorous visits to Anne become evidence against them both. Lady Rochford’s nasty innuendo about the relationship between her husband, George Boleyn, and her randy sister-in-law becomes damning testimony. Even the first novel’s title is a warning of sorts—not mentioned until that book’s last line, Wolf Hall is the family estate of Jane Seymour, the king’s future third wife, for whom Anne must be cleared aside.
In Mantel’s telling, Cromwell does the clearing faultlessly, and not without relish. A significant swath of Bring Up the Bodies’ second half is taken up with his interviews of witnesses and persons of interest as he develops the case against Henry’s inconvenient queen. As we know, this Cromwell can extract treasonous gold from an offhand phrase—every question seems just a few choreographed steps away from checkmate. But in Wolf Hall, Mantel made sure that even as loathsome a figure as her Thomas More could at least match wits and learning with Cromwell; in Bring Up the Bodies, by contrast, the Secretary to the King disposes with his chain of hapless suspects in the manner of a sixteenth-century Columbo. He thought “that this would be difficult,” Cromwell muses after Mark Smeaton volunteers that Anne fell in love with him. “But it is like picking flowers.” Cromwell is a little bit bored, and the boredom rubs off on Mantel’s book, which becomes repetitive and procedural. Or perhaps more to the point, the falconer is becoming more like the ruthless falcon: Boredom, like pity, never enters the picture.
Cromwell has also become a bit more like the king he serves in Bring Up the Bodies—and despite its faults, the book is a brilliant example of how hubris can become contagious. In a chaotic blip of time during January 1536, Katherine of Aragon dies, Anne Boleyn miscarries a male heir, and Henry falls from a horse during a jousting match and is temporarily declared dead. Cromwell decides otherwise, and applies his vision and will accordingly:
He stares down at Henry. He thinks he has seen, but it might be fantasy, a twitch of an eyelid. It is enough. He stands over Henry, like a figure on a tomb: a broad, mute, ugly guardian. He waits: then he sees that flicker again, he thinks he does. His heart lurches. He puts his hand on the king’s chest, slapping it down, like a merchant closing a deal. Says calmly, “The king is breathing.” . . . His hand heavy and flat on the regal breast, he feels he is raising Lazarus. It is as if his palm, magnetised, is drawing life back into his prince.
When you’ve raised a king from the dead, you’ve acquired the power of God and state, until God and state decide otherwise. The day of the resurrection, Cromwell is exactly four and a half years from his execution. The ability to condemn the living and raise the dead is no guarantee of keeping oneself alive. Like the falcon, Cromwell looks around and sees nothing but his prey, and one day soon—and no doubt in the final chapter of Mantel’s trilogy—he’ll see himself looking back.
Jessica Winter is a senior editor at Time.