I spent the first two weeks of the lockdown holed up with The Mirror and the Light, the final part of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy. It's only 882 pages. Wolf Hall is the story of the rise and fall of Henry VIII's ruthless, brilliant and ever-more-haunted chief councillor – his consigliere, as others have put it – Thomas Cromwell.
The man who procured Henry his wives, and then arranged for them not to be his wives. Like all good stories, there's something in it for all of us.
Cromwell's great task was not to slake the marital thirst of his king. He wanted to pull England from medieval superstition and the clutches of feudal lords and the Roman Catholic Church and create a modern world. He failed.
Who wouldn't? History, measured against dreams, is always about failure, and yet it marches forward anyway. How that happens is one of Mantel's glorious themes.
Mix it with a heady agglomeration of deplorables – the courtiers, I mean, not the honest rabble at the gates – a rich and tightly managed language and all those brutal deaths, and bar the doors, lock yourself down, you've got yourself a gripping, endlessly seductive story.
A modern Cromwell
I USED to work for a Thomas Cromwell. They're not so rare – even publishing has them. My Cromwell also thought he had a special gift for steering us through troubled times into the modern world. He wouldn't take advice, although he surrounded himself with advisers. He was self-made and proud of it. And, in the end, he was thwarted by the company's capricious and stupidly old-fashioned owners. They were the nobles and they had the power.
So Tudorish. He meant well and worked hard and you wanted to like him. But, just like Cromwell, he kept chopping off people's heads. Key people, especially.
It happened over and over. He admired talent but did not treasure it. You were in favour, then you were out of it, then you were gone. I was one of them.
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THOMAS CROMWELL was the son of a bully, a blacksmith who beat the boy on any drunken whim. But he ran away, learned soldiering and diplomacy and bookkeeping, and because he was clever he became indispensable, because he was ambitious he climbed high. And although he was conflicted, he tried hard, to the end, not be become his father.
In the new book, he's at the king's side but not always in his confidence. He arranges for two more queens to come and go but leaves Henry unhappier than ever. He relishes the silks and velvets: Mantel has him fully besotted with the sensual extravagance of the courtiers' world, their clothes, the food, the gardens.
And yet he has few friends: the nobles despise him, and rightly so; if a man can climb from the gutter to the court, where does that leave them?
Cromwell doesn't want to upset the natural order but he does have what we now call a Protestant sensibility. Work hard, live decently and you will prosper; he wants a country where that is true.
Or, as the Queen described Britons in her Covid-19 address: "the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humoured resolve, and of fellow feeling". Cromwell, despite the blood on his hands, would probably recognise himself in that.
For him, the instrument of the Reformation and Henry's Church of England is a new Bible, written in English and available to all. When the people can read the Word of God for themselves, they will not be at the mercy of priests to tell them what is true.
But the purpose of Cromwell's Reformation is not religious. It's commercial. Power, in his scheme of things, will shift from churches to colleges, from castles to counting houses.
What could go wrong, with the accountants in charge? Mantel's answer is, history doesn't work like that. Despite all that's new, this is still an old and fearful world where feudal power shores up ignorance and the law of the land is the plaything of the rich. The modern world keeps stubbornly refusing to turn up.
The whole of the Wolf Hall trilogy can be read as a journey through the stages of a Reformationist cross: the future is coming but at every stage someone who believes that is put to death. And although Cromwell should be their prince, he organises the executions, or stands by to let them happen. It's their tragedy, and eventually his.
Even William Tyndale, the Bible's leading translator, the very symbol of progress. Imprisoned in Catholic Europe, he is, in Mantel's telling, a difficult man to like, his cause just, his personality obnoxious. Cromwell leaves him to burn.
What do you do when the wrong people have the right ideas? The world doesn't work at the level of ideas, or not only at that level. It needs people who can fit together in a society – but actually, it also has to learn how to take all sorts.
Not so gentle deaths
THE DEATHS! The conviction of the righteous they had a duty to be cruel. Hands, noses, ears, cut off for misdemeanours, punishment at the whim of the local lord. Death for treason, which could mean speaking against the king, or just being accused of it. Death for heresy, an especially precarious matter when the doctrine of the church is being written anew.
Commoners were treated the worst: hung from the scaffold at Tyburn, cut down before you died and sliced open, your intestines spread out on your stomach for you to gawp at. And then sliced or torn apart, the pieces sent home to your loved ones.
Heretics were burned. It could be a slow death, with the fire lit beneath you so the flames took their time. There was more mercy if they stacked the pyre high with you right in it, more still if they looped a rope around your neck and, as the fire took hold, pulled hard on the ends. Garrotted, and also burned.
Nobles went to their death at the Tower, all their worldly goods forfeit to the king, their heads bludgeoned from their bodies with an axe. Sometimes, it took two or three blows. Anne Boleyn was lucky: Cromwell hired an expert swordsman to do it with a single swift slice.
People are sacrificed
POWER CORRUPTS. Of course it does. Mantel's after something more complex than that.
Power slows you down even as it speeds you up. Objectives are put on hold because conditions aren't right. Kindness is trumped by meanness. People are sacrificed.
Power, wielded successfully, is about matching ambition to circumstance. Doing what you can, knowing how to play the long game but also seize the moment. You can't just do what you want. You have to do it so it works.
In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is busy breaking up the monasteries. His goal, he keeps telling himself, is to eliminate superstition: to destroy the sacred relics – all those bogus bits of the bones of martyrs – and to put an end to the Roman idolatry of praying to saints.
But the monasteries are not turned over to the greater good. They become the property of nobles, dispensed by Cromwell as favours to shore up their power.
So the people revolt. Losing their saints means losing the mechanism of their hope: all the little things they cling to for comfort. And they lose their saints' days, too: their holidays.
Cromwell was one of them, once, but that only makes it worse. They hate him and he puts their uprising down with his customary, brutal, businesslike efficiency.
Turns out the only way he can give the English masses a religion to call their own is to force it on them with the sword and the hangman's noose.
Power corrupts, all right. Sometimes, especially, when it is wielded to good purpose.
With Covid-19 now, Cromwell would have been astonished how thoroughly you can wield power when the people are onside. But there's an even bigger catastrophe coming: we've been well warned there are just 10 years left until it's too late to stop runaway global warming.
What should we do about that? Cromwell's answer is so utterly the wrong one. Yet we cling to our relics – the internal combustion engine and other sacred totems – as much as any medieval serf did with those idolatrous bits of bone.
In the end, waiting in the Tower of London for his own beheading, Cromwell remembers the Duke of Urbino. "Essere umano," Urbino said, when asked what it takes to rule. To be human.
But what is it, to be human? To act with kindness but also to save ourselves and our world? How?
Power in the 21st century
MANTEL'S TUDOR England transplants to the 21st century more readily than you might think. Those feudal lords, treating the locals as their slaves, have become the tech lords of today, so powerful they can exempt themselves from paying tax.
And how good they were, the nobles and the church, at persuading the peasants they all had the same interests at heart. The baron and his serfs, one big happy family. It's the standard trick of populist politicians and corporate bosses everywhere.
To be fair, we lack the Tudor brutality, or at least we lack it at close quarters. We know people die for our wealth in the West, but we don't turn up to watch them being executed.
Poor Thomas Cromwell. A pre-Enlightenment figure, although he doesn't know it, peering into the gloom in search of a world of reason. He dies for treason and Protestant heresy, but not long after his beheading, England gives up on paranoid monarchs and the heresy becomes orthodox. Cromwell helped make it so.
Elizabeth even made Roman Catholicism illegal. But then came the Stuart kings: not Catholic for the most part, but from a Catholic line. Charles II allegedly converted on his deathbed; his brother James II then brought it into the open, 82 years after the death of Elizabeth, becoming an avowedly Catholic monarch. He was to be the last.
And in the middle of the Stuarts came the other Cromwell, Thomas' great-great-nephew Oliver. All that fitful progress and then, finally, a proper revolution. And even that got overturned.
That's how it is: progress is fitful. We know it. Two decades into a new century, we've had 9/11, the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Paris Climate Accord, all of which were going to be epoch-changing but then weren't. The old ways cling to the new world. Will Covid-19 change everything? I wouldn't count on it.
Are we pre-something, too, and just don't know what it is?
It always felt like Mantel's goal with these books, to set aside the old idea of Thomas Cromwell the tyrant and ask us to look harder at what it takes to govern. What it is to be a human when you're trying to wield power.
I think of James Shaw, playing his own long game on climate change, wishing it could be shorter. He's not like the Cromwell in charge of the king's terror, obviously. But he is like the Cromwell who urges his jailer to let his little daughter learn to read. He is like the Cromwell who went against the nobles and the priests, risking his life to do what he could, hold to his larger purpose, prepare for the day when more and better can be done.
The exercise of power is inconsistent and messy, even when there isn't any blood. History is always a parable. Every boss has an axe. No politician is ever pristine. Although, naturally, back in the day they did have better costumes.