By Chet Yarbrough
By: Hilary Mantel
Narrated by: Simon Vance
“Bring Up the Bodies” fictionally recreates the history of King Henry the VIII’s schism with the Roman Catholic Church. Hilary Mantel writes the story of Anne Boleyn’s demise and Thomas Cromwell’s role as the King’s henchman in separating Boleyn’s head from her body. Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” reminds one of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing!” which will out the truth.
As in Hilary Mantel’s earlier novel, “Wolf Hall”, Thomas Cromwell is the main character of “Bring Up the Bodies” but Mantel adds nuance and substance to 6’ 3” King Henry and his termagant second wife; a woman of ambiguous affections, duplicity, and malice; i.e. a perfect match, if not royal equal, to the King.
King Henry is a man of many parts that uses Cromwell to acquire
power from the Church and the Aristocracy. The King cleverly uses Queens (Catherine & Boleyn), Noblemen (Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Anne’s brother George Boleyn), and
Statesmen (Wolsey, Moore, and Cromwell) to increase his power, and wealth.
Henry the VIII is painted as a passionate, strong-willed, dominant personality that chooses to marry an equally passionate, strong-willed and dominant woman, Anne Boleyn. The King’s indirect and primary goal, in marrying Anne Boleyn, is to confiscate English wealth (land and income) from the Roman Catholic Church; i.e. he forces a schism in the church by nullifying his first marriage to his Roman Catholic wife, Catherine of Aragon. The King appoints Thomas Moore as England’s Cardinal with the belief that Moore would follow the dictates of the King and not the Pope. Moore refuses and is executed for treason; i.e. a charge manufactured and exercised by Thomas Cromwell with the tacit approval of the King. With the Church of England’s abrogation of the King’s first marriage, the stage is set for the King to confiscate Church property in England. Confiscating the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church in England becomes the legal responsibility of Thomas Cromwell. However, this is a delicate responsibility because many of the Nobles, the landed aristocracy, resent Cromwell’s actions because he is not a nobleman; further, and maybe more significantly, the King becomes less dependent on the Noble’s wealth and power because the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church in England inure to the King; the King can choose to use new-found wealth to praise or punish the Aristocracy.
A second goal of King Henry the VIII’s ambition is to sire a male heir with his new, younger wife, Anne Boleyn. Effectively, Catherine of Aragon becomes an unwed mother of Mary 1 (Bloody Mary), the only offspring of King Henry and Queen Catherine. (The King marries 4 more times without achieving this second goal.)
Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne, eventually succeeds to the throne.
Mantel shows how Cromwell makes friends, enemies, and frenemies in his rise to power. Cromwell is given some humanity by stories of his love for his children, the haven of his home for the indigent, and the trust and care he shows for some of his servants but the hard edge of his great power is exercised by using accusation, rumor, and innuendo to lop-off the head of Anne Boleyn. The brilliance of Mantel’s characterization is that Cromwell acts on the King’s stage; not as a producer but as a player; i.e. the King proposes and Cromwell disposes.
Anne Boleyn is never characterized as a weak, simpering woman but as a passionate, calculating, and forceful female that refuses to be cowed by the King, Cromwell, or her lascivious and narcissistic family. She hates like a man but uses her feminine allure to seduce a King and transfix a multitude of suitors.
Mantel shows that Henry the VIII is the dominant force in decisions made in England but the instrument of execution for the King’s decisions is the brilliant, irreligious pragmatist and tactician, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s first book, “Wolf Hall”, sets the stage for Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power; Mantel’s second book “Bring Up the Bodies” is the written play, with Cromwell as the main actor, the Queens as supporting actresses, and noblemen as bit-players; with the King as producer and director.