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The Mirror & the Light: A lavish processional; rich in perception, texture

Review: last of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series is perhaps half a million words; a good book is as long as it needs to be

The Mirror and the Light
The Mirror and the Light
Author: Hilary Mantel
ISBN-13: 978-0007480999
Publisher: 4th Estate
Guideline Price: £25

Anne Boleyn’s body is so slight that an elm arrow chest will suffice for a coffin. Her ladies lose their footing in her viscera as they carry the corpse to the chest and place her head by the feet. Too slight to bear the weight of accusation of incest with her dead brother George, or of cuckolding the king with five others who await execution in the Tower of London. Her real transgression is her failure to bear King Henry VIII’s heir, a betrayal in the flesh as grievous as as any heretic plot.

Thomas Cromwell is the second most powerful man in the kingdom. He administers the king’s estates. He intrigues with ambassadors, hands out benefices and taxes farms. As he consolidates the king’s confidence his thought circles back to those early chapters of Wolf Hall, the first meeting with the 15-year-old Thomas, beaten to a pulp by his father in the filth of a Putney midden.

He is a commoner among nobility at court. The great families, the Howards and Boleyns, despise him or at least despise their need of him. They lust for power, wealth, position, but it is hard to know what Cromwell wants. Perhaps he sets in place his own vision of England – pragmatic, just when he can be, expedient and ruthless when he must. Or perhaps he can do no other, swapping the sovereignty of his father’s fists for the service of a tyrant.

Everything focuses on the body of the king. Henry is plagued by cankers and leg sores. There is “a residual foulness in the bone”. He is fickle, magisterial, he quizzes scholars on points of canon law, demands the rack for traitors, discards wives and advisers. He puts on a masque for Anne of Cleves, hangs over his child bride dressed as a bear in all his age and grossness.


A king must overwhelm. A king must possess. But courtiers whisper behind their hands about his ability to sire an heir. Henry grasps kingship, embodies it, what is grotesque in it, what is glorious. Kings inherit the sins of their forebears and pass them on at birth to their offspring. The engendering of sons is the engendering of nation and primogeniture drives lordship. A queen’s blood on the Tower of London flagstones is of little consequence.

There are the foul intrigues of the nobility, as careless of their adversaries as they are of the common people

Courtiers jostle for power, ladies intrigue. All live within the close ambit of their own mortality. The king’s mercy is seen as being granted an easy death – the axe as opposed to the long agony of burning at the stake. Papists and heretics writhe in the flames of their own conviction. Anne of Cleves gives the king an heir and is divorced. Catherine Howard spills her life blood to the axe after 18 months. The noblewomen come forth and are cut down, die in childbirth or banishment, their intrigues seen as paltry yet enough to see a steady stream of young men end up in the Tower.

Street ranters preach of the promiscuities of their queens, or brand them barren. The baby Eliza, the Lady Bastard, who will live to be the virgin queen sleeps unseen in her cot.

Cromwell comes to see that the dead crowd the court, as numerous as the living, funeral cloth rustling among the Flemish laces and Venetian silks, the scent of decay rising up through the nosegays and herb-strewn anterooms. As he cleaves to the crown and its needs he knows that this is the scent of his evensong.

The third of the Thomas Cromwell books is a lavish processional, rich in perception and texture. There are images of unbearable beauty, and images of unspeakable depravity. There are the foul intrigues of the nobility, as careless of their adversaries as they are of the common people. There is the scent of tansey worn in a lady’s bodice. Passages of intrigue give way to passages of radiance. There is a restlessness to the text, a debt to beauty which engrosses. The book is perhaps half a million words; a good book is as long as it needs to be.

Henry understands his job. To bully and dazzle England into nationhood. The monasteries are dissolved and dissenting clergy sent to the stake. Rebellions simmer and are brutally suppressed. The rich are rewarded for loyalty and the poor order themselves according to rumour and portent. You feel there are lessons for contemporary politics in all of this if you only knew what they were.

The king amends and discards at will. He is not subject to the laws of man. Cromwell always knew how it would end. Loyalty only flows in one direction. That is the nature of kingship. The great families will not be gainsayed, and his enemies outnumber his friends. In the countryside mothers hush their children with the threat that Cremuel will hear their complaints.

Thomas orders his own passing as best he can. Best to go quietly that those he loves are left to live in peace. This is a king’s bargain and they both understand it. His memories in the tower are those of the little brothers who predeceased him. Their frail dead presences crowd about, whisper in his ear, tell him what he always knew, that the real sovereign is always death.