Bring Up The Bodies is the second part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series. Thomas Cromwell, King Henry 8th’s loyal second in command is at the height of his powers, dragging England into the modern era by setting the groundwork for the Church of England, whipping parliament into shape, and rooting out papal loyalists.
Picking up straight after the execution of Thomas More, after he has changed the political landscape of Europe by getting Anne Boleyn crowned as Queen, Cromwell now faces a new challenge: getting rid of her. He does so methodically, ruthlessly, hawkishly. He takes revenge on those that brought down his former master, Cardinal Wolsey, the son of blacksmith ripping from power some of the mightiest ruling elites in England.
Cromwell’s own motives are often murky, he plays the long game, a master of chess, a master of playing his opponents off of each other. Even we as the readers don’t get an insight into his mind. We stand alongside him, we perch on his shoulder, but we can never quite see the inner workings.
Reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies back to back is highly recommended. The story is like one continuous tapestry, it starts open, broad, builds a familiar world but one which is so utterly mesmerising, and then suddenly becomes laser-focussed as Cromwell swoops in on his prey in the latter half of this novel.
Just like in Wolf Hall – you root for Cromwell here. Henry is wrapped around his finger, reliant on him to do his dirty work. The pompous, decaying aristocracy of old England are on their last legs, and the age of the lawyer, the banker, capitalism is fast approaching, exemplified by Cromwell.
But towards the end of this book, his brutality, his loyalty to a king so clearly unfit to govern, makes us question him. He is almost tyrannical, and we are so intoxicated with him (as in Wolf Hall, Cromwell is refereed to simply as ‘he’ throughout) it’s difficult to look past his motives and see the devastation left in his wake.
But Cromwell knows this, as he knows everything. He sees the dynasty he is working for is coming to a close, the king losing his grip on his kingdom, his morality, perhaps even his sanity. He now carries a dagger with him everywhere, and he knows that one word from the king means everything he has worked for could disappear like smoke.
And so he plays the game, and plays it better than anyone. Anne, with all her power and cunning is knocked down before him, as is her brother, her father, for the time being even her uncle. He whips up a storm around him, but keeps his course straight as others are sent to the chopping block or cast adrift. Mantel is a masterful author. The way she weaves such beautiful writing, powerful imagery, symbolism in with an enthralling plot and such real, living characters is astonishing.
But of course, this is not the end of Cromwell’s story, with one more book to go in her trilogy. “There are no endings,” the book concludes. “If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. This is one.”