A King to die for

We recently witnessed the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee with its fireworks and flotillas and once again we marvel at the adulation that most in England offer up to royalty. Well, Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, Bring Up the Bodies (Holt, Henry & Company, Inc, 2012) , is evidence that such fascination with things royal extends to history, and this is especially the case with the Tudors. Mantel’s novel deals with the downfall of perhaps the most storied of Henry VIII’s wives, the beautiful but mercurial Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel to Wolf Hall (Picador, 2010), in which we see history through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who would go on to become Henry VIII’s master secretary. Bring Up the Bodies takes place in a more compressed time period (and you don’t need to have read Wolf Hall in order to appreciate it). We witness events through the eyes of Cromwell, a man who is dedicated to King and country—right or wrong.

Anne Boleyn has been the subject of many historical accounts, novels, and motion pictures, and it seems that we can’t quite make up our minds about whether she was a witch, a whore, or an innocent victim of political intrigue at a time when one man of questionable moral character was at England’s helm.

The story is familiar by now. Henry had given England a pax Anglica, an extended period of peacetime, but his wife of twenty years, Katherine of Aragon, could not present him with a male heir. He sought to put her aside, the Pope of Rome would not permit it (for political, not moral reasons—Katherine’s nephew, Charles, was Holy Roman Emperor), so Henry broke away from Rome and made himself head of the church in England. He divorced Katherine, and married Anne Boleyn (with whom he had been consorting to one degree or another for some time). The ugliness of this whole affair is over by the time the novel begins—and good men have died for opposing the King, including Catholc bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, both of whom would be sainted by Rome. Now Anne is Queen, and all is well in the best of all possible kingdoms.

Not quite. Anne is unable to produce a son, and her meddlesomeness is wearing on not only Henry but also Cromwell, and as we soon see Cromwell is not a man to mess with. Henry is bored and frustrated and looking for a way out of this marriage because he has set his sights on another young woman, Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s job is to make things go the way Henry wants, and Anne’s days are numbered.

Actress Natalie Dormer played Anne Boleyn in Showtime’s potboiler series “The Tudors.” Image source: Flickr

I do not like Cromwell, at least the Cromwell who is the focus of Bring Up the Bodies. There is no question of his intelligence, his mastery of intrigue, and his ability to maneuver through dangerous political conversations. His ability to deal with Henry—a man whose ability to rationalize whatever behavior he chooses to engage in is incredible (somehow, he is always the victim)—explains perhaps why Cromwell was as powerful as he was. But, as the search for a way out of the marriage continues, it becomes obvious—at least in Mantel’s telling—that Cromwell is not above using the search for Anne’s lovers to settle old scores. Five men will die before Anne’s head is separated from her pretty shoulders, but why they died might surprise you.

If you ever wondered why we have a Bill of Rights in our constitution, Mantel’s rendering of the process whereby “evidence” is obtained to condemn Anne Boleyn will make you appreciate the fact. Rumor, innuendo, and forced confessions were all compiled exhaustively and what is really horrifying is that, by the time the trial took place, those charged with sending her and her “lovers” to the gallows were yawning, so accustomed had they become to senseless slaughter in the reign of their peace loving king.

One of history’s greatest mysteries is whether Anne Boleyn ever “tupped” anyone but Henry at the Tudor court. But even if she did, her death was a far greater travesty. And, if Mantel’s suggestion that 4 out of the 5 men who died did so not because of their involvement with the queen but because they had offended Cromwell, then whatever you do don’t throw out that Bill of Rights.

This is a great summer read, especially if you are inclined to the historical –or if you are inclined to lose your head over stories about the royals!

Rating (3/5)

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

2 thoughts on “A King to die for

  1. Reading Wolf Hall at the moment but as far as the controversy regarding Anne’s guilt, it’s been pretty well demonstrated that she was removed (and very quickly mind you) because she headed a political faction that was not all that popular. She was a player in a kill or be killed scenario, quite possibly with Cromwell as her adversary, actually.

    In The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir goes into the particulars of what Anne was accused of (what, where, and with whom) pointing out that there was evidence available even during her trial, that on days and at times that she was accused of being with Mark Smeeton (for instance), she was actually somewhere else and with Henry(!) Aside from anything else, Anne was also made to sign a document stating that she had known of an impediment to her marriage to Henry. The same document annulled her marriage to Henry, determining that they had never actually been married. Kinda difficult to commit adultery under those circumstances. Just saying.

    Interesting article though and I’m looking forward to finishing Wolf Hall and getting on to the sequel.

  2. The Tudor period was one of great political and religious unrest, with Henry VIII not being able to produce a son as an heir, breaking away from the Catholic church so he could divorce his first, then successive wives, which led to England becoming Protestant then Catholic and back again for several centuries.

    One day you might find it better to be Protestant, the next you could be persecuted for being one, and vice versa.

    Sounds like an interesting book, since so much happened during this time.

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