/ 4 March 2020

Review: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ or, the fall of Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell portrait
Refracted: Thomas Cromwell — whose portrait was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, himself a character in the trilogy by Hilary Mantel — served as chief minister to King Henry VIII. (Supplied)

He, Cromwell, is a man of many names. Rarely is he just plain “Tom”; sometimes he is “Thomas” but, as is noted in the first novel of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall, “half the world is called Thomas”. 

Cromwell was “Put an edge on it” when he was a boy in Putney, the son of a blacksmith; “Ercole”, and later “Tomasso”, when he worked for the Frescobaldi banking house in Italy. He was “Cremuel” when he was the confidante of Anne Boleyn, concubine, queen and, finally, decapitee. He is “Crumb” to his household and friends, including King Henry VIII. 

And this is before we even get to Cromwell’s several roles and titles, among them Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Rolls, Principal Secretary, Lord Privy Seal and Viceregent of the King in Spirituals; Baron Cromwell of Okeham, Sir Thomas Cromwell, member of the Order of the Garter, and Earl of Essex. 

But as much as Cromwell’s different monikers signal his accumulation of power, not everyone will give him his due. “There are now three kinds of people in the world. There are those who give Lord Cromwell his proper title. There are flatterers, who called him ‘my lord’ when he wasn’t. And there are begrudgers, who won’t call him ‘my lord’ now he is.” 

The intrigues of the Tudor Court being what they are, these categories are malleable. Thomas Cromwell is a man for whom the portmanteau “frenemy” could have been coined. 

The Mirror & the light book cover
The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate Books/HarperCollins/Jonathan Ball)

The Mirror & the Light (the final book of the Wolf Hall trilogy) opens where Bring Up the Bodies ended — with the beheading of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is high in Henry’s esteem: over the course of the previous novels, he has seen off the king’s first two wives (you know how the doggerel goes); facilitated his acquisition of a third, Jane Seymour (whose family seat is the eponymous Wolf Hall); and conducted much other state and church business besides. By the novel’s close, Cromwell is confined to the Tower of London, awaiting the executioner’s axe. 

The reward in reading these hundreds of pages is not in finding out the plot of the narrative, but in following the plotting of the characters themselves. For this, historical fiction, rather than academic history, is the ideal form. This novel is also driven by Mantel’s decision to use the present tense, which brings immediacy to the dusty pages of history. Cromwell is written in the third person, but it is an intimately close rendering of this voice. As Mantel notes in an interview with author William Rycroft, “the story is told looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder”. 

Rather than using the “I” of the first person, “He, Cromwell” is the formulation Mantel deploys to give us access to her protagonist’s mind and world. One of the perils of writing in the first person is the claustrophobic, and limiting, effect this can create; the reader is not granted access to events outside the character’s immediate experience. By using the third person, Mantel evades this stricture but, through her close-up view, she takes advantage of the tension a first-person perspective can create. 

In the interview with Rycroft, Mantel notes: “There’s a limit to how much Cromwell knows himself. And I hope that as the third book proceeds, the reader will be saying, ‘yes, you tell me that, Cromwell, but I know better because I know you from the inside’.”

All narrators are unreliable, even Thomas Cromwell. One of the several accusations levelled against him as he sits in the Tower is that he had designs to marry Lady Mary, the king’s first daughter (retroactively proclaimed a “bastard” after the dissolution of his marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon). Cromwell denies this; it is another trumped-up charge. 

But the reader can’t help thinking to earlier in the novel, when Cromwell is trying to persuade Margaret “Meg” Douglas, the king’s niece, of the error in her self-proclaimed marriage to Thomas Howard. Cromwell thinks: “You have no notion how hard I am working for you. Neither had the Lady Mary. She ought to marry me, out of gratitude.” 

As a commoner who has risen to become a great man of court, Cromwell knows his position, but is forever thinking of ways to augment it; after all, this is precisely how he has achieved his power. When Jane Seymour dies in childbirth, his thoughts turn to her son, Edward, now first in line to the throne. What if Henry should die while Edward is still a babe? Cromwell appreciates his limits, but cannot help but voice his own best interests, if only in his mind. Henry should make him regent until the boy comes of age. Such a throwaway thought, even unspoken, is treasonous.

Cromwell may have many frenemies, but he keeps his accounts. He has the measure of each of them, or so he thinks. A chink in his armour is spied early in the novel when, in one of those invented incidents that is the prerogative of a historical novelist, he meets Dorothea Clancey, the illegitimate daughter of his erstwhile master, Cardinal Wolsey, whom he has not seen since her childhood. 

Dorothea believes that Cromwell betrayed her father and he is devastated at this assertion. “Dorothea has rewritten his story. She has made him strange to himself.” This neatly, yet subtly foreshadows his eventual betrayal by others who he thought were securely in his camp. 

Of course, as with all subjects, Cromwell’s favour — not to mention his life — is at the mercy of the king. He is writing a book, The Book Called Henry, in which he records his thoughts about how to manage his master. “You cannot anticipate or fully know the king”, “Do not be afraid to ask for what you want”, “He needs to be liked and he needs to be right. But above all he needs to be listened to, with very close attention”, “Never enter a contest of wills with the king”, “Do not flatter him. Instead, give him something he can take credit for.” 

When he has fallen from grace, Cromwell thinks that there is nothing in The Book Called Henry that can help him now. And there isn’t, but in its pages he has predicted his own downfall. “Do not turn your back on the king. This is not just a matter of protocol.” 

Despite the fact that Henry granted him the title of Earl of Essex a couple of months before his downfall, Cromwell’s service is not as pleasing to the king as it once was. He has failed to kill or capture the papist, Reginald Pole, who is traipsing around Europe, plotting to reunite the English church with Rome. He has orchestrated Henry’s disastrous fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves, whom the king cannot bring himself to touch. Most importantly, Cromwell is no longer at Henry’s side to persuade his master’s capricious nature to his own ends. His Italian fever has returned and he must take to his bed for weeks, just as his enemies are scheming against him. It may be inadvertent, but he has, so to speak, turned his back on the king. 

Instead, it is his long-time enemies — the Norfolks, the Suffolks, the Courteneys and the Poles — and his so-called friends — Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Riche — who have the king’s ear; who are able to refract the mirror and the light of Henry himself to their own devious purposes. “This is what life does for you in the end: it arranges a fight you can’t win.” 

The closing pages of the novel depict Cromwell back where he began at the opening of Wolf Hall, as he imagines himself bleeding on the cobblestones, under the boot of his father, Walter. But this time, his father, his aggressor, is the king, and he must pay with his life. 

The Mirror & the Light weighs in at a hefty 875 pages (give or take a few, depending on the edition). Some critics have suggested that it is “saggy”; this is no reflection on the writing, although perhaps some of the many events and machinations that the novel details could have been curtailed to save pages. The counterargument is that they are all intricately woven in the tapestry that depicts Cromwell’s undoing. Readers of the first two volumes have already been hooked into the story and, its length notwithstanding, when one reaches the end of the third, the feeling is not one of relief, but of loss. 


For those unwilling to relinquish Cromwell’s world, there is the TV adaptation of the final volume, starring Mark Rylance, to anticipate. And of course, the £50 000 question: Will Hilary Mantel make history herself, and win an unprecedented third Booker prize later this year?