‘When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’
In and Out of Cipher.
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote.
Derek Walcott, from The Sea is History
Umberto Eco tells us there is a fate that links the historical novel to medieval topics, that our conflicts can be traced to the tumultuous, ongoing, break between the dark ages and ‘today’– the chugging engine of modernity. We live, he claims, within a wave of the neo-medieval. The trick is to identify what brand of Middle-Ages is being traded, and Eco identifies ten variations upon the theme. Of the lot, he comes out in favour of the philological Middle-Ages, which “lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look ‘human’”. He would rejoice in Wolf Hall’s painstaking historiography.
If the medieval does haunt the modern, Eco himself fed our steady fascination. No one stalked the antecedents of modernity better than Eco in Name of the Rose or Baudolino. And no one, Eco inclusive, has injected the modern as precisely into the feudal as Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall. Mantel is aided by her choice of protagonist. A more modern man than Thomas Cromwell you would be hard-pressed to find in our postmodern, neo-medieval times. One might long for Fr. William’s lucidity while parsing the difference between Reginald Pole and Martin Luther, but he remains too enmeshed within the organisation of an earlier time to look through it as astutely as Mantel’s Cromwell does.
Plenty of critics have emphasised the confusion created by Mantel’s consistent use of the third person nominative to refer to Cromwell: there is only one ‘he’ in her novel. I found the device ingenious: substituting the omnipresent divine ‘Him’ with a personal ‘him’ as the driving feature of narrative is a splendid caption for the altering gestalt she captures.
I walked, till suddenly on the wind
A chill heresy was borne
‘No wishing in your starveling heart
Nor choice of unharmonious mind
Brought you in these great riches any part’.
—- Larkin, from Because the image would not fit
From the balance sheet of History, here is a divine joke for the tidy-minded taxonomist: three Catholic Marys (Guise, Stewart, Tudor) and three Protestant Annes (Emden, Cleves, Boleyn). Three Furies and Three Graces, yet how are they to be assigned? This is the Reformation gone from being a debate within St Augustine’s mind to a Freudian battle between God’s mother and grandmother. But let us back-pedal into some context.
16th century ‘Christendom’ was protean place: heresy and literacy spread the land, the New World was found, Old Ideas were newly recovered. It was a century when people flipped religions like pancakes, and theological unbuttoning released a sudden burst of freedoms. Women, tightly confined by the rigours of birth and hearth, had little voice in the new doctrines spilling through society. Only noblewomen, secure and reasonably educated, could stake their claim as new sources of authority were explored. Where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of Castile pioneer, two generations of aristocrats gracefully glide. It happens in stages- first as wives, then as widows and spinsters – as the fate of my gender goes.
By the time the 1550s draw around, there are any number of fascinating, powerful women about. From being Caesar’s to being Caesar. In the shade of a paltry possessive a moon-landing hides. In England such sudden feminism is especially poignant. Three women anointed Queen in the decade after Henry VIII! If one is to argue the public benefit of Henry VIII, it can only be this: it proved to generations of aristocratic women that men’s shadows are fickle places to inhabit.
The progress of Henry VIII’s wives might once have had value as an allegory for the Reformation. The promise of dangerous freedom turned to greed/tyranny etc. The six wives of Henry VIII are now the Reformation’s celebrities; you can blame them for as much or as little for perceived degeneracy as suit your morals. ‘Philologically’ recreating them, qua Eco, is futile- in their own times, rumours and scandal about them cropped up ‘like mushrooms in the damp dawn grass’. Historical perspective, the pride of hindsight, is mutilated by gossip accreted into five centuries of propaganda. One must work crab-wise to sift the impulses that motivated these cautiously emancipatory queens.
Wolf Hall allows us a glimpse into how society was unlaced, if for men more than women. In her choice of Cromwell, Mantel escapes the noose of female agency and representation, while retaining the perspective of an alien in the corridors of power. The Reformations might have stultified into fresh dogmatic prisons, but her account of Henrician England highlights a society absorbing profound flux:
The world is not run from where [Harry Percy] thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence.. from Lisbon where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and the click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot… The fates of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase.
Thomas Cromwell did womankind-at-large little service; he might have recovered divine law for secular intelligence, yet he simultaneously redeployed the marriage-metaphor: the Church was once bride of God, the ruler is now husband of the ruled. Yet, great individuals (even of the unexpected gender) arise from the entropy encouraged by the collapse of rigid orthodoxies. The momentum is not infinite, but it can be profligate while it lasts, as this cavalcade of almost-queens along the Atlantic coast demonstrates. Only Elizabeth successfully split Cromwell’s conundrum, and she would not have found a man better pleased.
Elizabeth’s revelation, however coerced by circumstance, was that dynasty is a taint on governance. Unlike Catherine de Medici, perennially parrying and feinting to defend her family’s uneasy hold on the throne, Elizabeth had the freedom of riposte. If Cromwell was the patron saint of modern bureaucracy, as Elton has argued, she was its midwife. Her father broke England in his quest for a million sons to divide up his realm. Elizabeth, in a singular stroke of genius, bound Scotland and England into an intertwined future.
All legacy is castles upon winds: the future is temperamental, and no amount of fretting or breeding will sort out posterity. Besides, entitlement dampens one’s desire to be productive. Elizabeth I, bastard child of a homicidal king and a heretic whore, certainly had the entitlement well expelled from her. Mantel’s Cromwell would have enjoyed Elizabeth: they would have made a wicked team, with a mutual sense of humour and taste for equipoise.
The Person, Cromwell.
Is it possible
That so high debate,
So sharp, so sore, and of such rate,
Should end so soon and was begun so late?
Is it possible?
Is it possible
That any may find
Within one heart so diverse mind,
To change or turn as weather and wind?
Is it possible?
As men wed ladies by licence and leave.
All is possible.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, from Is it Possible?
Thomas Cromwell was a quintessentially Renaissance man, of an age with Erasmus and Zwingli, Gropper and Contarini; his generation saw much probing into possibility and potential while barricades between churches were blurry and shifting. His personal faith reflects the negotiating they did between new and old notions of God. He may resent priestly privilege and spurn the sacraments, but his personal loyalty extends to the nether-realms: he negotiates with the church for Cardinal Wolsey’s soul to be transferred from limbo to more comfortable lodgings in purgatory.
What I grew up with and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment and then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of the world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’”… “Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where is says ‘Pope’”… “Show me where it says, in the Bible, that you can’t have beef-olives during Lent”
Women writers are often accused of trafficking in the domestic at the expense of the political and the existential. Mantel turns the cliche of the redundant household ferociously upon such critics, and in her hands domesticity is the ultimate test of hypocrisy. Thomas More is a petty tyrant in private, whipping his children and taunting his wife; Cromwell would arm his nieces and “despatch them to Ireland”.
Cromwell has an abandoned-puppy approach to family: he picks up abused strays and polishes them into men of the world. By the end of the novel, he has a small army devoted to him- “hawks in the mews who move to the sound of his voice”.
The Austin Friars is like the world in little. These few years its been more like a battlefield than a household; or like one of the tented encampments in which the survivors look in despair at their shattered limbs and spoiled expectations. But they are his to direct, these hardened troops; if they are not to be flattened in the next charge it is he who must teach them the defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.
History tells me Cromwell’s fate. I know Call-Me Risley will turn on him, that adopted son Richard is Oliver Cromwell’s forefather, that Stephen Gardiner carried More’s legacy into Marian England. I know trigger-happy Henry will squander the wealth Cromwell spent his life amassing on an unwise war. But there are details of considerably more importance I’m awaiting in The Mirror and the Light.
How does Cromwell reconcile his betrayal of Anne Boleyn? He loathes the Boleyns out of loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey, but he recognises the queen as a cornerstone of his own project: “A world in which Anne can be queen is a world in which Cromwell can be Cromwell”. How can he compel himself against the grain of such conviction? Will he realise how conjoined they are even as he does it? Anne surely does:
‘I am Jezebel. You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.’ Her eyes are alight. ‘As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters the world. I am the devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks the man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me. Well, that is their view of the situation. My view is that there are too many priests with scant learning and smaller occupation.’
Then there is that overwhelming question floating across our neo-medieval lens: how will Cromwell- this urbane thug who refuses inquisitorial torture and friars’ flagellation equally- acquiesce to one to repudiate the other? If there is an aspect of modern man (and state) that demands urgent inspection, it is the proclivity for torture inherited from the medieval church.
All Cromwell achieved was the trans-substantiation of heresy into treason. As ghost-Wolsey warns Cromwell, when fortune turned, only he felt her lash (and axe). Henry merely descended further into madness. Already, in his last conversations with More, the ‘sturdy spirit’ of 1533 is giving way to the weary Cromwell, ‘tired out from the effort of deciphering the world, of smiling at the foe’. He knows that More’s evasive intransigence coupled with Henry’s obstinacy scapegoats him: “in the eyes of the world we will be the fools and the oppressors, and he will be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase.”
The Pilgrimage of Grace is a heart beat away as Wolf Hall closes. That revolt, unfolding at the heels of Munster’s millenarian anabaptist prophet, heralded the faith-storms about to engulf Christendom. Cromwell’s solid ambivalence is to be severely tested: how does one compromise between doctrines when each is twisted into a myriad horrors? Thomas Cromwell, newly at the helm of England as we leave him, was more finely attuned than anyone to the great break initiated on his world-historic ‘miserable rainy island’. It’s his body, not Henry’s harem, upon which history’s engraved.
Update: A review of the next book of Mantel’s Cromwell series, Bringing Up the Bodies, appeared in the Sunday Guardian in August 2012.
A List for Today
The Three Who Were One.
Three Catholic Marys
Stewart, Tudor, Guise.
Three Protestant Annes
Emden, Boleyn, Cleves.
Virgin Mother, Sinning Grandmother
you prefer EvetoLillith?
Adding Ana Nzinga
Unfurls splits in myth.