Dizzyingly, dazzlingly good … Hugely exciting, packed full of power struggles and political machinations, but also delightfully poetic, vivid in image and phrase. A rich and subtle wonder. –Daily Mail on Wolf Hall

It has pace, excitement, astonishing insight into human psychology (most of it extremely nasty) and a wonderful ability to recreate a savage world half way between magic and modernity … A must. New Statesman on Bring Up the Bodies

Booker number three?

By Roger Childs

The Mirror and the Light (1)Last Tuesday was the 480th anniversary of Thomas Cromwell’s death. He was one of the greatest public servants ever to serve an English monarch. Hilary Mantel has brought him and the Tudor age he lived in, vividly to life, in probably the most incredible trilogy ever written. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the author Booker prizes and The Mirror and the Light is highly likely to net her an unprecedented third. She is on the recently announced 2020 Booker “long list”.

This eagerly awaited climax has been eight years in the making and you can see why. At 883 pages it has been a mammoth undertaking but once again Hilary Mantel has produced a work of impressive scholarship, incredible complexity and breath-taking brilliance. 

Historical fiction at its best

Many historians are dismissive of those who pen historical novels and indulge in poetic licence along the way, however Hilary Mantel has won great respect from academics for her pain-staking research and meticulous attention to detail. She prefaces each of her books with a long list of characters – covering six pages in The Mirror and the Light – and this provides a vital source of reference for the reader to consult. A few of these are “invented characters” – servants and commoners – who help provide continuity in the story.

This climax in the story of Henry VIII and his talented Secretary, Vice Regent of the Church and Lord Privy Seal, starts in 1536 with the death of the king’s second wife Anne Boleyn. She is executed for adultery with a single swing of the sword by a French executioner who threatens to put up his prices if Henry needs him again. 

If you were seen to be a threat to the King, found guilty of treason, or just disagreed with the King’s religious beliefs at the time, you could be hung and disembowelled, burnt at the stake or beheaded by axe or sword. Over the next four years the executions kept coming.

A brutal and complex age

Thomas Cromwell came from humble origins and some members of the aristocracy often taunted him about being ‘low born’.  His father was a blacksmith and brewer in Putney who often meted out violence to his son. 

Thomas Cromwell (1)The trilogy needs to be read in order, and number one, Wolf Hall, covers Thomas’s childhood and his extraordinary early life as a soldier in the French army, adviser in Italy, trader in the Netherlands and lawyer in London. Along the way he acquired many languages which proved of great value in his negotiations with various European leaders and ambassadors, and in his role as Henry’s chief servant. The talents of Cromwell were extraordinary, but he needed all his skill and guile to satisfy the changing demands of the king and survive 10 years in the cut-throat world of the English court and the wider political environments of Britain and Europe.

Henry VIIIHenry VIII knew that he must have a male heir if the Tudor dynasty was to survive. His father had won the kingship after the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, but there were always rivals to the throne who needed careful watching. The king had daughters by Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, but in the quest for a son new brides were needed. Much of Cromwell’s work involved searching for the next wife.  Not surprisingly from 1530 to 1540, he had many political rivals who closely observed his every move, keen to see him fall foul of the king and subsequently fall from grace.

Writing of great quality

Hilary Mantel possesses a wide range of literary skills and, based on her comprehensive knowledge of the early Tudor age, she brings the reign of Henry VIII alive with vivid descriptions, in depth characterisation and highly credible and delightful conversations. But fundamentally she never strays far from the events of this crucial reign in which England broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome; made friends and enemies in Europe; dissolved the monasteries and tried to avoid expensive wars. In his 10 years as Henry’s chief advisor Cromwell was able to reform and strengthen royal government, increase the role of parliament, improve revenue gathering and extend the crown’s control over the aristocracy. 

Cromwell tells the story throughout and often ponders over past events from his childhood onwards. He constantly assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his contemporaries and rivals, as well as royal advisors like Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More who have gone before him. The story includes plenty of literary nuances and historical allusions; dreams and fantasies; humour and drama; as well as evocative descriptions of landscapes, towns, buildings, clothing, food, and people from royalty to the lower orders.

The Mirror and the Light is a magisterial achievement and a fitting climax to an extraordinary trilogy on the life of a great Englishman. All bookshops stock it and the libraries have it on their shelves.