Monday, 30 June 2014

Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

"We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a land undespoiled by sheep or plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It's not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It's what's latent in the soil, what's breeding; it's the days to come, the wars unsought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm."

We are never far, in Bring Up the Bodies, from disturbing some bones, bones fleshed by Mantel in fluent butcher's argot. It is as if she puts us at the table and sends in course after course, while we wait for the main dish to appear, Queen's cake perhaps? "Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body..." However, it is not wholly Anne's intestines that preoccupy Cromwell - "he had a second bunch of  recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives." Here Anne is both killer and corpse in waiting.

The book is full of violence, much of it subterranean, barely held at bay but always ready to rise to the surface. We look back at this violence and it can seem distant but the characters in the novel look back and feel the same way - "many hundreds of years ago, before kings had numbers: when all maids were fair maids and all knights were gallant and life was simple and violent and usually brief." Mantel makes us look at our own time and we don't have to look too far to see that although many things change the bodies aren't buried too deeply. And we would do well to remember that "Full bellies breed gentle manners. The pinch of famine makes monsters."

The king and his advisors were very aware that the loyalty of their subjects was in many ways a function of the King's power. If that power faltered there were many waiting to take advantage of a weakness. "The old families of England are restless and ready to press their claim, especially since Henry broke with Rome; they bow the knee, but they are plotting. He can almost hear them, hidden among the trees." One of the things Cromwell remains aware of is that his life is a cheap trinket to the King and the aristocracy. He needs to serve the King's purpose well, and also ensure the King remains in power. Until he has a son, there are many who hold hope of succession, and Henry's death would create a dangerous vacuum. This is one of the reasons Henry needs a legitimate son. to ensure that there is a clear line of succession. (Although we know that his son will prove less resilient than his daughters).

Cromwell continues his efforts to appropriate much of the wealth of the Church and use it to shore up the power of the King. He has many justifications for doing this, both practical and moral. Cromwell is rarely short of a justification for his actions. "Take Battle Abbey. Two hundred monks at the height of its fortunes, and now - what? - forty at most. Forty fat fellows sitting on a fortune.The same up and down the kingdom. Resources that could be freed, that could be put to better use. Why should money lie in coffers, when it could be put into circulation among the king's subjects?" The morals of the monks are one of his persistent bugbears, their ignorance of the bible, the dissolution of their lives: "They claim they're living the vita apostolic; but you didn't find the apostles feeling each others bollocks."

Mantel gives a real sense of the frustrations of women in the court. Gossip and intrigue are rampant, their lives circumscribed by the will of the Queen and  King.  Cromwell starts to search among them for tales of the Queen's infidelity, as Henry's thoughts move towards Jane Seymour. The ladies in waiting revel in gossip:  "They giggle. Lady Worcester makes creepy motions with her finger. 'Nine of the clock, and here comes Harry Norris, bare beneath his shirt. Run, Mary Shelton. Run rather slowly...'" But Cromwell is on a serious quest for information or gossip that might bring down the Queen He soon finds a likely source, Jane, Lady Rochfort, married into the Boleyn family itself, albeit very unhappily.

Mantel points out the weakness of gentlewomen, who are married off to make alliances and will not find much support if the union proves unhappy: "...a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master who spares the whip." When Cromwell suggests that Lady Rochford looks to her father for help she cynical in her response: "'What is the use?' She is scornful. 'When we married he said he was doing his best for me. It is what fathers say. He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would selling a hound puppy. If you think there's a warm kennel and a dish of broken meats, what more do you need to know?' You don't ask the animal what it wants.'"

The character of Lady Rochford is vivid. "Misery seems to leak from her pores. She laughs but her eyes never laugh; they flit from face to face, they take in everything." Her intelligence has turned in on itself and she becomes an early conspiracy theorist ("If someone said to Lady Rochford, 'It's raining,' she would turn it into a conspiracy") but her outsider status and keen observational skills are just what Cromwell needs to try and find a chink which will allow him to legitimise bringing down the Queen. "'Jane' he says, 'if the time comes when you wish to disburden your conscience, do not go to a priest, come to me. The priest will give you a penance, but I will give you a reward.'"

What Cromwell's own reward is to be is doubtful. His own end always hovers on the horizon and although he gathers power and possessions he has little time to enjoy them. "He is buying land in the lusher parts of England,  but he has no leisure to visit it; so these farms, these ancient manors in their walled gardens, these watercourses with their little quays, these ponds with their gilded fish rising to the hook; these vineyards, flower gardens, arbours and walks, remain to him flat, each one a paper construct, a set of figures on a page of accounts: not sheep nibbled margins, nor meadows where kine stand knee-deep in grass, not coppices nor groves where a white doe shivers, a hoof poised; but parchment domains, leases and freeholds delimited by inky clauses, not by ancient hedges or boundary stones."

He is though, a man with a mission to change England, whether it be law, religion or education. Even when enjoying the beauty of the English countryside (at a gallop) his mind turns to the problem he senses there - "it is good for him to get out to the country. Squeezed in London's alleys, edging horse or mule under her jetties and gables, the mean canvas of her sky pierced by broken roofs, one forgets what England is: how broad the fields, how wide the sky, how squalid and ignorant the populace."  And if the English peasants are ignorant, the Irish are always revolting, although he might have an answer to that: "Ireland is quiet this Christmas, in greater peace than she has seen for forty years. Mainly he has brought this about by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It's an art, a necessary art; the Irish chiefs have been begging the Emperor to use the country as a landing stage, for his invasion of England."

When Henry is knocked unconscious and appears dead in a jousting accident, the crowd around him comes alive with the spirit of civil war, with claim and counter claim signalled with differing subtleties. Cromwell's sense that England is in need of a clear line of succession to guarantee peace is galvanised. So is his sense that his own survival is always on the whim of the king, whoever that may be. He sees the pen as more powerful than the lance, at least in the long run, and senses that trade will come to matter more than blood, however blue it be: "chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys."

Mantel can draw vivid character  traits in a sentence. The Duke of Norfolk, uncle of the queen, is loud and fearless seeming but she tells us - "he fears the dead." And the most vivid corpse in Cromwell's ossuary is his old master, the Cardinal, who may haunt the Duke: "If Wolsey wanted Norfolk he would lie quiet inside a table top, breathing along the grain of the wood; he would ooze through a keyhole, or flop down a chimney with a soft flurry like a soot-stained dove."

And as for Anne's father, Thomas Boleyn - "He is not a man wedded to action. Boyleyn, but rather a man who stands by, smirking and stroking his beard; he thinks he looks enigmatic, but instead he looks as if he's pleasuring himself." We know that this will eventually become coitus interruptus but there is still a shimmer of tension from the pages as we head towards Anne's death. How will this death play out for the minor characters? How many more enemies will Cromwell make?

He knows he acts beneath the axe but he still must act. Inaction may only speed his journey beyond history. He gathers reasons to bring Anne to trial and justify the whim of the King. He puts flesh on the charges, however ephemeral they may be. "Anne's lovers are phantom gentlemen, flitting by night with adulterous intent. They come and go by night, unchallenged. They skim over the river like midges, flicker against the dark, their doublets sewn with diamonds. The moon sees them, peering from her hood of bone, and Thames water reflects them, glimmering like fish, like pearls." He knows the price of failure, and that he must succeed. And all the while, although we are in his head, we remain just a little unsure of his motives. He is, after all, a man noted for his inscrutability: "you are as likely to shit rubies as learn an Englishman's secrets."

And just as the writing of history is partly the wrestling of todays politics, so political manoeuvres are both the strategies of game playing and history written in blood. "In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can't endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die."

But this is a game without end, you can be winning but a rogue 'however' can be your undoing, as the last lines of Bring Up the Bodies let us know, as, like the very title of Wolf Hall, they point to the next book: "The word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margins. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one."

Reading this through to what was the end, I realise how much I have left out.  Cromwell's household, full of learning and purpose. His relationship with ambassadors and the slow drip of information about his time in Europe. and above all his relationship with his son Gregory and the other boys who grow into adulthood in his house. His love for Gregory that he can hardly admit to himself is exquisitely drawn, especially as Gregory, raised to be a gentleman, seems more playful and less cynical than Cromwell and the other boys.  Gregory is also more at home with the aristocracy, and enjoys the tilting yard and court wit and gossip. He also enjoys tales and fables, and seems credulous at times, but you sense that underneath, he realises that although he chooses to believe what will give him most pleasure, he remains his father's son.


  1. Enjoyed this more than wolf hall. Hit the rhythm of the writing straight away.

    1. Looking forward to part three then/ I know I am.