The Story So Far: Hilary Mantel Summarises Bring Up the Bodies

Posted on 4th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

The publication of The Mirror & the Light, the majestic conclusion to Hilary Mantel's groundbreaking Wolf Hall trilogy, is undoubtedly the literary event of the year. If you require a refresher on the story so far before immersing yourself in the richly evoked world of the Tudor court once more, who better than Hilary Mantel herself to bring you up to speed?  

‘Him or me?’ is not a question, Thomas Cromwell says – it is a directive, it is a call to action. You don’t stop, at a point of crisis, to consider the merits of your opponent’s case, or weigh his interests against your own. ‘Before you say, “Him or me?” you should have his name on a warrant and the ports blocked, his wife in your confidence, his friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog answering your whistle. Before you say, “him or me?” you should have the axe in your hand.’

Wolf Hall left Thomas Cromwell in July 1535, the court about to quit London for the summer. Thomas More, who opposed the king, is dead, his head spiked on London Bridge, his prayer book examined for bloodspots and then disposed of. Though it looks like a victory, More’s death is a kind of defeat for Cromwell; ‘victory’ would have been persuading him to live, and knuckle under. More’s fate is a dreadful lesson to anyone who stands in Henry’s way; once, he and the king had been confidantes and friends. But Henry seems to have forgotten the dead man, as he plunges into the pleasures of the hunting season.

Bring Up The Bodies opens in September 1535. The king, with a small hunting party which does not include Anne the queen, is at Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, the home of the Seymour family. Thomas Cromwell is a member of the party, with his teenage son Gregory and his young lieutenant, Rafe Sadler, the steady shrewd young man who has grown up in his household, and whom he is grooming for high office. The king is at ease in this company. He likes Rafe and Gregory. Cromwell, his secretary, is indispensable to him. The Cromwell party has to endure a steady stream of put-downs from the young gentlemen around the king, Francis Weston in particular: but they are used to that. Thomas Cromwell is teaching his apprentices to have regard for the substance of power, rather than its appearance. On the other hand, Henry is easily influenced by the people close to him; it would be useful to have more friends in the inner circle of the court. 

Cromwell is not entirely at leisure. A steady stream of messengers go to and from London, keeping the government running. And the trip through the west of England has allowed him to take a survey, in his mind’s eye, of the region’s aristocratic families and how they think and live. He is conscious of what an oddity he is: one the most powerful men in England, but with nothing behind him, no ‘breeding,’ no pride of ancestry, no inherited values: also, you might say, no constraining code. There is a kind of freedom in it; but he is aware that it is up to him to invent himself, day by day, never off his guard, never less than ingenious and bold and three moves ahead of the pack of courtiers around Henry.

Since the king destroyed his patron Wolsey, Cromwell has survived and prospered through an alliance with Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn. But his relationship with Anne has soured. She has become aware that he is no longer ‘her man’ but a power in his own right. He is one of the few men who is immune to Anne’s spiky sexual attractions. Perhaps she resents that? She is becoming more difficult to deal with, discontented and restless. The king, intermittently, seems as infatuated with her as ever. But the old aristocracy are not reconciled to Anne, and all England is aware that she has failed to do what she promised to do: give Henry a son to succeed him and secure the future of the kingdom. Her first pregnancy ended in the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, and her second in a miscarriage. Anne’s ill-wishers – and there are many –  suggest that history is repeating itself. Katherine’s only living child was a girl, Mary: apart from that, only a series of obstetric disasters.    

The week at Wolf Hall offers a lull before the storm of autumn, and a chance to get to know the Seymour family. Cromwell has marked down the sons, Edward and Tom Seymour, as ambitious and able young men. Jane Seymour, the pale, plain unmarried daughter, has been spared for a few weeks from her duties as lady-in-waiting. One day the king takes a walk in the garden with Jane. When he comes back he looks, Cromwell thinks, like a calf that’s been knocked on the head by a slaughterman. 

If he himself had any feelings for Jane – which he is barely willing to admit – he starts unscrambling them. It’s clear to him that, however unlikely a candidate she seems, Henry would like Jane as a mistress. He sees alliances shifting, regrouping….But then, as the court arrives back at Whitehall, a blossoming, smiling Anne announces that she is pregnant. She is once again in a position of power, and the Boleyn family – her father the Earl of Wiltshire, her brother George Lord Rochford – begin to preen themselves in a manner Cromwell finds, to say the least, irritating.


The return to Whitehall means also a return to his intractable enemies, to his policy of watch and wait. He is able to put names to them – the men who, if they got together, could destroy him. One is the Duke of Norfolk, Henry’s military expert, now in his sixties but vigorous as ever: a ferocious bundle of sinews and raw nerves, deeply conservative in politics and religion, and alienated from the present regime. Norfolk is furious that he has to bow the knee to his niece Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell’s very existence is an affront to him: ‘You nobody from Hell,’ the duke had called him, not long ago.

Cromwell’s other chief opponent is Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Over a year ago, Cromwell had forced Gardiner out of his position as the king’s secretary, and knows Gardiner will never forgive him for this. A bullying extrovert, Gardiner has a sharp mind and a genius for double-dealing. The king rates him highly as a hard-hitting foreign representative, and Cromwell’s strategy is to keep him out of the country as much as he can, across the channel infuriating the French. Norfolk he can deal with, on a day to day basis. Sometimes the crusty old duke forgets himself and is quite comradely. But when Bishop Gardiner is around, Cromwell is always conscious of his steady, baleful eye. Gardiner is a strenuous propagandist for Henry’s religious changes. But Cromwell suspects his real allegiance, if he has one, is to Rome.

Now, when Cromwell strides through Whitehall or some other palace of Henry’s, he notices how much space people give him. They scatter from his path; even when other men are in conference with him, they accord him personal space. But in the public rooms of the palaces he sees knots of men, deep in conference, huddled, almost furtive; they shoot glances over their shoulders at him, they draw closer together and each of them stands with a hand caressing a dagger, elbows pointing backwards, sharply, in his direction: he understands these communications that need no words.

The nearest thing he has to a friend? Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, a former Cambridge academic whose timid and haunted manner belies his tough and independent mind. He and Cromwell long ago struck up an alliance, based not only on a common aim for a reformed church, but on personal liking. The trouble with Cranmer is that he is no plotter; when you strike a blow for the common cause, better tell him afterwards.

Otherwise, he relies increasingly on Rafe Sadler, and his nephew, Richard Cromwell, a bruiser in the Cromwell mould. Gregory, his son, is a graceful lightweight; he suspects he always will be. Then there is Thomas Wriothesley, known as Call-Me-Risley, handsome, ambitious, clever, attentive, a fast learner; but what exactly is he learning?   

And his private life? It’s almost ten years since his wife died. People are always scheming to marry him off. He feels, personally, that if you have Henry to deal with, you have no emotional energy at the end of the day. You want a drink and some unexacting masculine company, and to go to bed and sleep. If members of the Cromwell household sometimes encounter strange women going downstairs in the early hours, they know they will not be around for long: after that, a pay-off, a parting of the ways, an amicable settlement.


Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, is dying, fading away under house arrest. The news of her decline inaugurates a period of intense diplomatic activity, and a series of meetings between Cromwell and the Spanish-Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys. Chapuys is a clever, impassioned scrap of a man, a man of feeling, but a career diplomat, suave, far-seeing: and far from home. He and Cromwell, neighbours in the city, spend perhaps more time together than they need, finding each other unexpectedly congenial company: two supple men of affairs, they don’t trust each other an inch. For security reasons, they often conduct their meetings out of doors: sometimes in the field with their falcons, the ambassador scurrying after the robust Cromwell on his arthritic little legs: once on a building site, in the foundations of Cromwell’s extension to his city house.

The point is this: if Katherine dies, her nephew the Emperor has no more need to quarrel with England. The Emperor picked the quarrel on her behalf, instituted economic boycotts, harassed English shipping. Post-Katherine, there can be reconciliation, and an English economic boom. Chapuys cares a great deal for the sick and abandoned queen. He suspects Cromwell wouldn’t hesitate to hasten her death if poison could do it. Why do people think such things of him? He remembers the musician, Mark Smeaton, saying he looked like a murderer. Having visited Katherine for one last time, he is perfectly content to let nature take its course. 

But what will happen to Katherine’s daughter, Mary? Now twenty, Mary has been separated from her mother and kept under house arrest. A wretched bundle of fears and faint hopes, afflicted by headache and toothache and insomnia, her self-possession stretched to breaking point, obstinately loyal to her mother and her mother’s lost cause, Mary blames all her troubles on Anne Boleyn. She has been cut out of the succession to the English throne, and is a potential focus of treason for disaffected aristocrats. Cromwell knows he must watch her closely. But he is also determined to protect her from Anne, who wants her executed or in some other way disposed of. This is not just because he pities Mary; though he does, as she makes him remember his own dead daughters. It is also because he knows that England is only a heartbeat from disintegration. If Henry dies – accident or sudden illness – his lawful successor is the princess Elizabeth, his child with Anne Boleyn. But Elizabeth is still a baby in the cradle. How likely is it that Europe would recognise this child as queen, when most countries don’t even recognise her parents’ marriage as legal? Until Henry has a son, in a marriage that everyone agrees is sound, Mary is the most likely next ruler. He visits her, to assess her state of mind. On the face of it, Cromwell stands for everything Mary hates; reformed religion, the Boleyn party. Yet in his heart, he is confident he can work with her, if it comes to it. Henry living or Henry dead, he intends the rule of Cromwell to survive any one, particular regime.

But Anne, let’s not forget, is carrying a child. England’s saviour? Or another girl? 


Katherine dies. Henry and Anne dance at court in an indecent display of jubilation. Before his first wife can be buried, the king takes a fall in the tiltyard. For two hours, the he lies unconscious. Once Cromwell has spun it to Europe, it’s a mere ten minutes; and it’s true that Henry wakes up with, seemingly, no harm done. But five days later, Anne miscarries her baby. She blames her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, for giving her a shock by telling her brutally that Henry had fallen from his horse and was dying. The foetus – and it is unusual for this information to become known – is male.    

Something changes in Henry. He says, ‘I see that God will not give me male children.’ His own brush with death, and this last blow of fate: he is depressed, he is unpredictable, he is increasingly interested in Jane Seymour, now back at court: Jane, so serenely oblivious to his interest. Cromwell and her brothers, monitor the situation. Henry sends Jane presents. She sends them back. The trick that made Anne Boleyn queen bears repetition; Jane refuses to be alone with Henry, and it’s obvious that if he wants her, he has to marry her.    


Henry hints that he wants to be rid of Anne. He is out of love with her. She has lost her looks. The Boleyn marriage is in his way as he seeks credibility in Europe, as he seeks reconciliation and a fresh start.  He is content to leave the details to Cromwell; Henry is the sort of man who constantly swerves away from the consequences of his choices, marital or political, and tries to place the responsibility elsewhere. Cromwell’s interest is not only to survive Anne, now hostile to him, but to strengthen his own position. 

Cromwell, with Cranmer, explores the possibility of a divorce for Henry. Before Anne married the king, it was said that she had made a marriage contract with the young earl of Northumberland, Harry Percy. Cromwell had bullied him into saying that there was no contract. Can he now bully him into saying the opposite? This is how, he tries to tell the young man, you can save Anne’s life; we can show that she was never married to Henry, and that he is free to marry Jane. But Harry Percy, now a sick, broken-down creature, is too bitter or too stupid to comply.

So now? To remove Anne, Cromwell creates a series of alliances –  with the Seymour family, on the one hand: himself in the middle: and on the other wing, the Catholic/Spanish/Princess Mary interest, represented most immediately by the ambassador Chapuys. Cromwell does not necessarily intend Anne’s death. But he needs her disempowered – and her family with her. 

The plot is sprung on the first of May, when a joust – with Henry as spectator – takes place at the palace at Greenwich.  Anne is also a spectator, laughing and flirting with the young men of the court. In the middle of the action, Henry gets a message. He stands up, signals the courtier Henry Norris to join him, and rides back to London. On the way, he accuses Norris of being Anne’s lover. He will pardon him, he says, if he will confess.

Meanwhile, at his house, Cromwell is entertaining the court musician Mark Smeaton. A bottle of wine and some teasing suggestions, and Mark is confessing – indeed, boasting – about his affair with the queen – how, once she had slept with him, she had no time for her other lovers. Who were? Mark is keen to name them: Lord this, Sir that, but you see, she preferred me: I may be nobody, but when it comes to it, I am a better man than them. Who should hear this strange confession, but Thomas Cromwell? Isn’t that what he has said himself, so many times but in a different context: I am a better man than they are?

For once, Cromwell is caught off his guard. He is astonished by this development. What he expected from Mark was a bit of grubby gossip. What he has got is something explosive.

Richard Cromwell says, they will claim we tortured Mark. Cromwell shrugs. Within a day, Mark is in the Tower, Norris is in the Tower, so are William Brereton, Francis Weston, two courtiers close to the king: and so is Anne’s brother, George Boleyn. None of these gentlemen will make a confession. Cromwell casts his mind back: when Wolsey fell from power, there was a play at court, in which the howling cardinal was carried to hell by four devils, two for his hands and two for his feet: they were Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and George Boleyn. The scene is lodged in his mind. It has been lodged there for some years.

A fulminating panic takes over the court. Cromwell interviews Anne’s ladies, and Jane, Lady Rochford, alleges that her husband George Boleyn has a sexual relationship with his sister, Anne the Queen. It seems bizarre, but Cromwell can use anything. He had arrested George with no clear information against him; but moment by moment, rumours gain ground, and all he has to do is stand back and watch them. Henry is panicked, furious, incredulous; yet, at another level, he placidly receives each grim revelation, and (as his wife is dragged off to the Tower) is rowed down the river, accompanied by musicians, to visit Jane Seymour, who is staying handily close by. Cromwell has supervised every detail of Henry’s emotional enthrallment with Jane. Her remote purity is the attraction to Henry, her seeming indifference to him. To the papist party, Jane’s attraction is that she has sent her love to the poor exiled Princess Mary. To Cromwell, the attraction is that of a new regime, with a leading family, the Seymours, indebted to him. And surely, by Jane, a son for Henry?     

In the Tower, Anne’s nerve breaks and she unwittingly, by talking wildly about her dealings with the men accused, creates the case for the prosecution. She is accused of having slept with her brother, and with four other men; but further – and this is the capital charge – she is  accused of plotting the king’s death, in order to marry one of her lovers.  A reverse for Cromwell comes when the king insists on the arrest of Thomas Wyatt – the poet, Cromwell’s friend, vulnerable because gossip had named him as Anne’s lover before her marriage. Cromwell is sufficiently confident of managing the king that he can tell Thomas Wyatt’s father that he will be released unharmed: it will take time, but he can ensure it. In a situation that alters violently, moment by moment, Cromwell is in command. Inside, he may be quaking. In politics, he feels, the simulation of control is everything. Once mistaken for the fact of control, it breeds its own reality; the nervous duck away and avoid the issue, the compromised take fright and take flight.

At Anne’s trial, her old lover Harry Percy sits on the jury, and collapses during the proceedings. Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presides over the court, not sorry to see the back of his arrogant niece. Her father, knowing he is lucky to have kept out of the debacle, can make no protest. The ruin is complete. Impassive, Cromwell stands by the scaffold as Anne’s head is taken off. It is the convention to kneel and avert the eyes when a soul passes. But Cromwell stares hard: he wants to make sure she’s dead.     

Each of the men executed  – Weston, Norris, Brereton, Mark Smeaton, George Boleyn – had at some point crossed Thomas Cromwell. Two of them were among the ‘marcher lords’ who ran their personal fiefdoms on the Welsh border, and one of these two, William Brereton, had, some time before, unlawfully executed a man in his own territories, and so attracted Cromwell’s anger. His revenge was always considered, and it was like him to use economy of means – while getting rid of a queen, clear up some problems regarding law and order in Cheshire and Wales.


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