Hilary Mantel’s brilliant sequel to her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, has once again earned her a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Bring Up the Bodies is a continuance of Thomas Cromwell’s story as it intersects with Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. As the novel opens, it is the fall of 1535 – Former Queen Katherine of Aragon is on her deathbed and current Queen, Anne Boleyn, is also inching dangerously close to death. She has made many promises in her relentless efforts to become Queen, yet the most important promise – to produce a male heir to the throne – has yet to be fulfilled. In the meantime, rumors have begun to circulate that perhaps Anne has not been faithful to her husband, and that, perhaps their daughter, Elizabeth, was fathered by another man.
Pretty soon, the swirling rumors reach the ears of the King, and although Henry is outraged at the prospect of his wife’s extramarital encounters, he also sees it as an opportunity to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, who has turned out to be more trouble than pleasure for Henry. And of course, “Queens come and go,” so Henry enlists the help of Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell to remove Anne Boleyn of her position so that a new (and hopefully more fertile) Queen can take her place. Luckily for Cromwell, “the affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear,” so the process of Anne’s removal is expedited. In fact, it takes just about a month for Cromwell to compile a case against Anne, have her tried in court, and finally beheaded. The crimes against the infamous Queen include treason, incest, and adultery, and her trial and subsequent death prove to be extremely consequential for the Tudors. Many others are sent to their deaths because of what they may or may not have said and done with Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s Court is in disarray after living in the midst of potential conspirators and traitors.
But even before the death of his second wife Henry’s lust has found a new target – Jane Seymour. Miss Seymour is known for her reputation of purity, innocence, and humility, and Henry would love nothing more than to marry her immediately and impregnate her with (fingers crossed!) a son. And Henry is the King, so, with the help of the ever-faithful Cromwell, England has a new Queen less than 2 weeks after the death of Anne Boleyn.
To British history buffs, the Tudors’ story is nothing new. Henry VIII was one of the most infamous and highly-discussed English monarchs, and his relationships with his (count em’) 6 wives have been fairly well documented throughout history. But Mantel isn’t really interested in Henry or Anne or Jane or Katherine. Of course they’re all important players, but none of them compare to the true mastermind of these Tudor events. Thomas Cromwell was always there, quietly listening in the shadows, writing everything down and memorizing every single detail of the King’s personal and private affairs so that he would be prepared for anything and everything imaginable. Thomas Cromwell made things happen before the King even realized he wanted them to happen. He’s been called cold, cruel, calculated, and evil. But he was also probably one of the most intelligent and well-informed men in Tudor history – despite what he may have accomplished or destroyed with such knowledge.
Either way, Bring Up the Bodies offers readers a new perspective on Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn – one that focuses on the pragmatic aspect of the surrounding events rather than the emotional or romantic facets. As Hilary Mantel has said, Cromwell “is still in need of attention from biographers,”but even the most skilled biographer may have trouble bringing Cromwell’s story to life compared to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
Mantel is currently writing the third installment of this Henry VIII trilogy, which is titled The Mirror and the Light. Bring Up the Bodies is on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist (which she won in 2009 for Wolf Hall), and The Mirror and the Light is probably already nominated for the 2013 prize. I hope so. And I hope she wins!
This review was simultaneously published on Hooked Bookworm