The second in her chronicle of that most opaque of medieval politicians and power-brokers, Thomas Cromwell, this novel details the fall of Anne Boleyn, from the third-eye viewpoint of the man most people believe engineered it.
The book deals with the efforts of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer-in-chief, to obtain a divorce for the King.
Thomas Cromwell: At the peak of his power behind the throne, as Master Secretary to the Privy Council, his intelligence, swift grasp of detail and incredible memory makes him equally admired and feared. He is supremely objective, even when contemplating himself, and is cold-eyed in his assessments.
Anne Boleyn: She is the seductive, wilful mistress we all recognise, and is adept in wielding her power. However, her failure to produce an heir after seven years of marriage has Henry beginning to weary of her.
Jane Seymour: Young, shy, dull, she is the sacrifice her family are willing to make, in order to become related to the King.
We open at Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymours. Henry VIII has moved there to avoid London’s summer diseases, and while there, Henry casts his lecherous eye on young Jane. Henry’s wife Anne is in no doubt of her own prospects, unless she can produce an heir. They are the epitome of the seven year itch, as their marriage is one of argument and disillusionment.
Henry himself is beginning to show the results of his exuberant lifestyle, the excesses of which are now no longer being burnt off in the hunts and balls he was famous for. His recent accident, in early 1536, has changed him, and marks the turning point in his becoming a paranoid, cruel and melancholic King. Anne claimed the stress of his near-death caused her to miscarry her baby boy, and now Henry has turned against her. Of course, the potential lack of an heir has raised the spectre of civil war.
Henry turns to his fixer Cromwell, who in turn attempts to have the marriage dissolved. Anne’s father and brother reject this out of hand, and Cromwell himself is threatened. Cromwell now has no option but to see that the marriage is ended, and his prosecution of Anne, and destruction of her reputation, is thorough and relentless. He observes no scruple in getting the information he needs (up to and including torture), and will treat testimony, hearsay and gossip equally in order to serve his purposes. Anne’s final public appearance is achingly well-written.
He uncovers rumours of Anne’s alleged infidelities (with seven men, one of whom being her own brother), and builds enough of a case that she, along with her brother and other confidantes, are tried and convicted of capital charges. Cromwell, gimlet-eyed, also takes the chance to avenge the ruination of his old mentor Cardinal Wolsey, by having some of those who ruined him brought to “justice”, tried and executed.
However, we do see a deep human side to the man at moments. He has lost his beloved daughters, and you sense they are always in his thoughts, even when he is at his most cruel.
The beauty of this book is how well the political intrigue is written, the delicate path that had to be trod, in order not to fall foul of an increasingly paranoid monarch. The stakes are the highest, and to risk all is to potentially lose all. Cromwell will adapt to whatever is most advantageous, both to the country (Henry) and to himself, and will not let sentiment slow him down. As he himself says, there are no endings, only beginnings. Cromwell ultimately triumphs at the close, though there are dark clouds gathering around him.
What I Liked:
- The balanced character of Cromwell. He is not the one-dimensional demon beloved of The Tudors TV programme.
- The pace of the book brings home just how swift Anne’s fall was.
- The world-building was excellent. The language used really evokes the people and landscape in the mind’s eye.
What I Didn’t Like:
- As in Wolf Hall, there is a large number of minor characters, and keeping tabs on these and their relative importance is a bit of a challenge.
This is an excellent read, a perfect dipping-into of well-known English history, with fast-paced political intrigue, and real-life characters playing for the highest of all stakes. It is an object lesson in how to navigate the trickiest of waters, where one wrong or misplaced word can get you killed (or, in modern times, gets you fired then vilified by tweet). Superb read.