We know how it ends. It’s how we get there that matters.
There is a scene in the superlative western noir, Deadwood, where the madame of the Bella Union hotel and whore house, Joanie Stubbs, mentors the young and conniving con-artist Flora on survival in a hard world: “ … mostly, you can steer it, sweetheart”, she says, “and when it’s going to get to where you can’t, you get just a little notice, just a couple of seconds, before the one thing turns into the other. It’s like a funny smell comes into the air. And then you know, there’s no more steering and get the hell out of the way”. Flora, overconfident and full of herself, is deaf to th sound of thunder, and ignoring Joanie’s advice, proceeds to a brutal and bloody doom.
Towards the end of The Mirror and the Light,the final volume in Hilary Mantel‘s acclaimed Tudor trilogy, Thomas Cromwell, disgraced and imprisoned in the Tower of London in the very room he’d placed the doomed Anne Boleyn, contemplates the old Greek legend of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, the builder of the famous Minotaur’s labyrinth. There was a point at which headstrong Icarus could have changed course – but the temptation to fly higher and higher was irresistible: Thomas “reads the book of Erasmus, Preparation Until Death, written only five, six years back, under the patronage of Thomas Boleyn. It tires his eyes; he would rather look at the pictures. He lays the book side and turns the pages of his engravings. He sees Icarus, his wings melting, plummeting into the waves. It was Daedalus who invented the wings and made the first flight, he more circumspect and circumspect than his son: scraping above the Labyrinth bobbing over walls, skimming the oceans so low his feet were wet. But then as he rose on the breeze, peasants gaping upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths; and as he gained height there must have been an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and in his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life”.
Poet WH Auden recreated this scene decades before Hilary Mantel in his visit to Paris’ Musée des Beaux Arts. On the one hand, the poet might appear to be commenting our indifference to others’ misfortune and suffering, but on the other, the message is more mundane: whilst bad things happen to someone, life goes on around them. The multitude is not necessarily indifferent but rather, unaware, uninformed, and physically or emotionally distant. He writes:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Thomas senses that “ funny smell” that Joanie mentioned well before his fall comes inevitable. Like Icarus ascending, he could have changed course. He senses it some two thirds into Hilary Mantel’s house brick of a literary masterpiece. When Queen Jane perishes soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI, King Henry having now got his male heir, needs a spare to ensure the survival of his dynasty and charges Cromwell with the chore of securing him a new bride. Things have already been getting dicey for the bold Chancellor.
He is the public face of the king’s split with Rome and the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope. The perennially cash-strapped Henry is hooked on the riches and the lands that accrue to the crown and its cronies with the dissolution of the great abbeys and monastic houses. Cromwell himself has his hand in the till, enriching himself and his family.
On the one hand, he is loathed by the common people who yearn for the old, familiar ways, the “bells and smells”, the bits of dead saints’ bones and the shreds of their shrouds, and having risen up in rebellion against the new order, have been put down mercilessly with sword and rope. On the other, there’s the ancient noble families who whilst also being enriched by the plundering of the abbeys and the appropriation of the church’s expansive landholdings, harbour hatred for Cromwell the commoner, the blacksmith’s son, who has risen so high – too high – in the kings favour. The king too is a parvenu beneath their contempt. As Mantel writes, “the grandees of England’s claim descent from emperors and angels. To them, Henry Tudor is the son of Welsh horse thieves: a parvenu, a usurper, a man to whom oaths may be broken”.
Thomas is only too aware of all this. The tide is turning, and not in his favour. And yet in his self confidence and overweening faith in his capacities, his sense of obligation to his family and friends who would almost certainly fall with him, he resolves to “manage it through” as we say today in management-speak, knowing that “he who rides the tiger never can dismount”. “We are living on borrowed time” he tells a clerical friend and Protestant, “in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert (we sleep lightly and some nights hardly at all … If the king can burn this man, he can burn us’.
Should he have quit whilst he was ahead?
That would have been back at the end of Wolf Hall, the first volume in this outstanding trilogy. Tom, the blacksmith’s son, former street urchin, soldier, mercenary, kitchen hand, clerk, accountant, banker, dealer and merchant had risen high in the services of Henry’s first chief councillor Cardinal Wolsey. When the prelate falls in the wake of his failure to resolve the king’s “great matter”, his divorce from the first if his six wives, Katarina of Aragon, “the Spanish Princess”, Cromwell emerges unscathed and indispensable. He engineers the disgrace and death of Wolsey’s successor, Thomas More, the righteous and ruthless scourge of heretics, and fosters Henry’s affair and marriage to the vivacious and opportunistic Anne Boleyn.
Thomas finds solace at the Seymour family’s Thames-side ancestral pile, the eponymous Wolf Hall. Plain Janes sweet, and young, and though he does not quite admit it at this point in the narrative – it is one of the ‘reveals’ of book three – he’d like to make her his second missus (the first died from plague along with his two little girls, and all three haunt him throughout his odyssey).
Thomas could have pulled out of his ascent then and retired to a modest but, for his time and circumstances, quite comfortable fortune. But no. The devil drives, and his political, economic, social and spiritual ambitions, and, yes, his pride and his greed got the better of him.
His Protestant beliefs, fostered during his sojourn in the heretical Low Countries, impelled his rejection of the Roman faith with its corruption and its confidence tricks, its profiteering and its hypocrisy, its fabricated sinecures and sacraments, its relics and its indulgence. His pure hatred and contempt for the whole shaky edifice is force-fed by the prospects of divesting the English church of its immense power, wealth and influence, of filling the impecunious crown’s coffers, and diverting a goodly portion to Thomas Cromwell and his nearest and dearest.
His hatred for the old families was undisguised – his dismissive contempt for their interests and pretensions, their precious noble lineages and pride therein. To his mind, they were all the heirs and successors of barbarians, bandits and warlords, unfettered, unlettered, and unappreciative and unworthy of his grand project
The hatred was mutual. They abhorred the Cromwell the commoner, and resented the Boleyn ascendancy – for when Anne rose, so did the boats of Cromwell, and of Anne’s father and brother and their kin – parvenus all in England’s heraldic hierarchy and tainted with French blood. And yet, as is the manner of the English aristocracy, they are all interconnected, through marriage or the outcome of illicit liaisons, and run with hare and hunt with the hounds. Nor more so than the noble (in the aristocratic rather than the moral sense as morality doesn’t come into it) and pugnacious Duke of Norfolk. He is Cromwell’s erstwhile ally and nemesis; he fosters sad Anne’s marriage to the king, observes her fall from grace, presides over her trial and its preordained verdict, and attends her execution; and then, when the opportunity presents itself with Henry’s rejection of his fourth wife, Princess Anna of Cleves, handpicked by Thomas from a lineup of eligible, royal and strategic European beauties, goes after the matchmaker, the low-born, ambitious and avaricious Cromwell.
Add to Thomas’ reformational fervour, his ambition and greed, and a major misstep with regard to Anna, the original “sad eyed lady of the lowlands”, his justified pride in his prodigious talent and intellect, and his hubris. Too clever by half, we’d say today. He knew he was the nobles’ intellectual superior and never failed to flaunt it with friends and foe alike. And the latter, when it all came down to it, were more numerous and strategically placed.
And finally, his “doom”, to talk in Tolkien terms, was that he misjudged King Henry – his vanity, his pride, and his obsessions, his hopes and his fears. Thomas had convinced himself that he knew the king and could control – no, guide him, anticipate his desires, and his wishes. In the quiet after-hours, he was writing “The Book of Henry”, an anthology of Cromwellian ruminations on the essence of kingship. It is a theme that Mantel returns to often in this doorstep of a book. Henry is indeed “The Mirror and the Light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”. The Book Of Henry is a guide to kingship modeled on Machiavelli’s contemporary treatise “The Prince” (arguably the most quoted, misquoted and never read political tract ever published – up there with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to be done? and Mao’s Little Red Book – not to mention Thomas Hobbes who wrote about life being “nasty brutish and short” during the English Civil War a century after Cromwell and Henry were rendered to dust – a confrontation with the monarchy precipitated by Thomas Cromwell’s nephew’s great grandson Oliver. History sometimes works like that – that which goes around comes around.
And, yet, whilst Cromwell reckons he can “read” the king, he acknowledges throughout that when it all comes down to it, Henry is actually unpredictable, quixotic, eccentric, capricious, narcissistic, and unknowable. And dangerously so. To repeat, “If the king can burn this man, he can burn us”. Which he does, although sparing him the fire that consumes heretics and the hanging, drawing and quartering that awaits traitors; both charges having been laid against him, “the kings mercy” consigned him the headsman’s axe. Not the beautiful, scripture inscribed French long-sword that dispatches Anne of the Thousand Days, the first of the “light and the Mirror ” motifs reprised in this story, but an easily blunted English broad axe wielded by an allegedly intoxicated executioner (histrorians maintain that this story is apocryphal).
As we said, we know how it ends, but it’s how we got there that matters. And I’d long wondered how Hilary Mantel would take us there – before I’d read the final installment and whilst I was reading it.
And how do you drop the final curtain when you are in essence the narrator?
“The pain is a acute, raw stinging, and ripping, a throb. He can taste his death: slow, metallic, not come yet. It is terror he tries to obey his father, but his hands cannot get a purchase, nor can he crawl. He is an eel, he is a worm on the hook, his strength has ebbed and leaked away beneath him and it seems a long time ago now since he gave his permission to be dead; no one has told his heart, and he feels it writhe in his chest, trying to beat. His cheek rests on nothing, it rests on red … He is very cold. people imagine the cold comes after but it is now. He thinks, winter is here … I flail my arms in angel shape, but now I am crystal, I am ice and sinking deep: now I am water. Beneath him, the ground upheaves. The river tugs him; he looks for the quick-moving pattern, for the flitting liquid scarlet. Between a pulse-beat and the next he shifts, going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea. He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.
“He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.
Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill on 28th July 1540. he had sent many to their fate there, including Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn’s alleged paramours. He was buried in the Tower of London’s Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Interred there are also Anne Boleyn herself, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and the last the Plantagenet line – their doom was Cromwell’s’ doing – and nineteen year old Catherine Howard who became Henry’s fifth wife on the day Cromwell died, and, condemned for adultery, went to the block less than two years later.
This whole story has been about England, it’s legends and it’s legacies, it’s rythmns and rhymes, it’s history past, present, and future. And he, Thomas Cromwell, has made England shake. But it’s all over now, and the saints are indeed are coming through, and the sky is folding under him. Everything is moving; there are no stepping stones. Icarus has reached ignition point, and the rest, “the rest is silence”.
Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d,
And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
Why shall I grieve at my declining fall?
Farewell, fair queen. Weep not for Mortimer,
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown.”
Young Mortimer, in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II
A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia.