We well know King Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn's fate (it involves her body being separated from her head for those who don't know) ... yet it's intriguing to see how Henry managed to get rid of his second wife and finagle marrying his third, Jane Seymour, Anne's lady-in-waiting, through the eyes of King Henry's Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell.
Mantel is amazingly descriptive in detailing King Henry's and Queen Anne's machinations here in the second book of the proposed trilogy. Please see the review of the first book (detailing the fall of the first wife Katherine of Aragon and the ascension of the second wife Anne Boleyn). The series will conclude with the third book in the series, the yet to be published The Mirror and the Light.
The trilogy chronicles the rise and eventual fall of Cromwell, who had a front row seat to these historic events in England: the dismantling of Catholicism in England; the succession of wives procured to produce a "legitimate" son and heir (Henry had a "bastard" son Henry Fitzroy who was prohibited from ascending to the throne); the gradual elimination of the successive wives ... until poor old Henry petered out himself, likely exhausted from all the bloodshed and sorrow he had caused. I don't want to spoil the ending but Cromwell only lived to see the first three wives appropriated, used and discarded.
As intimidating and frightening as Cromwell appears to those around him (and to us at times as the reader), Mantel movingly conveys the insecurities that sometimes plague him, as a powerful man who comes from humble origins. True, he is harsh, Machiavellian and mercenary but at no time do we side against him as a reader - despite his duplicity and manipulation of both the King and those who surround him. Cromwell is by turns, nostalgic, tender, romantically inclined, progressive in his treatment of the poor, and by all accounts here a good husband and a better father.
As the novel starts, Anne has been Queen for three years and has been unable to bear Henry a son although she did give birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. And the king is getting twitchy for a male heir ... and amorous.
Anne and the Boleyns are clearly the villains here, pictured to be manipulating Henry - slandering Katherine of Aragon, the first queen; keeping Henry's daughter Lady Mary (once Princess Mary when her mother was Queen) a hostage with no access to her mother as she won't recognize Anne as Queen; hoping for Katherine's death and threatening Cromwell if he displeases the new Queen.
And Henry, vain, petulant, over-stuffed and knuckle headed, must have what he must have whether that be a new mistress, a submissive wife, and a male heir.
And all the while Anne (and Cromwell, our everyman hero) have their beady eyes on plain, submissive Jane Seymour whom they suspect, rightly, that the King has set his sights on as his next conquest.
She orders her women out: a vehement gesture, a child scaring crows ... the ladies gather their trains, flap languidly away ... Lady Rochford is the last to take wing, trailing her feathers, reluctant to yield ground.The image of crows is significant and apt, a bad omen, foretelling disaster for Anne and her kin - the Boleyns and the Howards.
When Katherine finally dies, unrepentant and still desirous of a union with Henry, Anne seeks a rapprochement with Lady Mary, the King's daughter, but only if she will recognize Anne as Queen. She does not and Anne vows to destroy her.
At this time, soon after Katherine's death, a strange incident takes place, during a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace on 24 January 1536, the corpulent Henry, falls, in full armour, from his horse and is presumed dead for some two hours - this is based on a true historical event. Cromwell, upon hearing the news, packs a dagger on his person in the full
Yet after the king's accident, Cromwell still feels that he is on the "wrong side" of a number of potential enemies: the Boleyns, the King's daughter Lady Mary, the Queen's uncle the Duke of Norfolk, the Queen's cousin the Duke of Suffolk, the King of France who supported Katherine and the Pope, among others. He observes: "The contest - every contest - is sharper now."
With the loss of a second son through a miscarriage, the King suspects that evil forces are working against him - that he was been bewitched and cursed and that his two key advisers, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, might have had something to do with it, plotting to have him marry Anne against his better reason. In a menacing nightmare, Cromwell dreams that he hosts a sumptuous banquet for all his enemies who insult his hospitality, his background, his person. In the banquet hall he sees:
Up there are carved and painted faces of the dead: More, Fisher, the cardinal [all executed on the King's orders], Katherine the queen [banished from court, her marriage annulled]. Below them, the flower of living England. Let us hope the roof doesn't fall in.
Mantel writes of Cromwell: His past lies about him like a burnt house. How should Cromwell proceed? Continue to support Anne and the Boleyns or Henry's newest interest Jane? Which is most politic?
When Cromwell and others see Henry turning away from Anne, Cromwell sees to it that he gathers enough evidence to rid them all of Anne who has made no friends at court. He fishes for malicious gossip amongst her ladies in waiting - sowing and gathering seeds of dissent and ugly gossip - and then cements the evidence by torturing an effeminate and mild-tempered musician, Mark Smeaton, who is said to have had relations with Anne. Smeaton unleashes a torrent of names.
In many ways, the book shocks. Anne is rumoured to have coupled with Henry in unorthodox ways (i.e. not in the missionary position). This baffles and plagues the King - where would she have learned to do that, from whom, from what source? Did she thus "waste" his seed when she should have been trying to procreate with him and provide him with an heir? I have no idea if this rumour about Anne is historically accurate but that it surfaces boggles the mind. The brutality it conveys towards women is like a punch to the solar plexus.
How quickly the Boleyns and the Howards collect to disown Anne and retain their privileges.
Cromwell's interrogation of the half dozen men accused to have slept with Anne is one of the few instances where I dislike Cromwell, actively. You seen that he is wavering internally, when he weighs the logic of what is true and what is not in the men's testimony - none will confess but point the finger, subtly, at the others. But he pursues their (and Anne's) destruction regardless.
If you are a monarchist, you perhaps will be enraptured and intrigued by the King's machinations. If you are not, then you might be secretly thrilled with the idea of noblemen being picked off like flies by each other ... one by one by one.