Friday, 10 April 2020

The Memory and the Bones - Thoughts on the Wolf Hall Trilogy


These three books tell part of the story of Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to Henry the Eighth during the English Reformation.

tldr; rough-and-tumble superintelligent poor boy becomes consiglieri to likeable-then-monstrous narcissist king during cultural firestorm and helps him chop and change wives and policies, becoming super-duper powerful before being executed by that same king under *mysterious circumstances*.

And I realise that’s a long tldr but I have listened to these books on Audible for nearly SEVENTY SEVEN hours in total. There is a lot going on


Mantells prose is very good and her insane levels of hyper-detailed research and slightly bonkers shamanistic possession by the scene she is writing do make you often genuinely feel as if you have been ported into the body of one of her characters, or are hidden in a corner, and are watching History live in front of you moment-to-moment.

It’s a hell of a thing to know exactly how some minor event or small thing turns out from Wikipedia but to feel reading about that same event all the hyper-awareness, worry, fear and uncertainty of an immediate scene with no known end.

Will the King recover from his tournament knockout?

(yes you know he will, but it doesn't feel like you know)

Will the catholic/northern Pilgrimage of the Five Wounds (something I didn't know about before) march on London and kill Cromwell?


Will the French King and Holy Roman Emperor finally stop being dicks to each other and get together to fuck over blighty?

(Kinda, almost, but then no.)


There is not much of a plot except the plot of events which is really good for creating complex tensions some of the time but also pretty formless feeling compared to a more normal drama. Also there are SEVENTY SEVEN HOURS OF THIS which even for good writing, is a long fucking time. She does drag on a bit, at least in audiobook version and at least for me.

Do we need to sit through every meeting?

Maybe we do. History is pretty wide and deep and the things Mantel is trying to tell us can't be told in a more standard and stripped down drama. Small things build up. Tiny interpersonal events grow and change over time. Small particular offences or strange alliances build and die in this moment-to-moment world. Big things have small beginnings and grand falls come about through the meshing together of a hundred little cracks, each one so minor you would barely notice it to begin with.

One of the things that brings down Cromwell in the end is his very slight dullness compared to the start.

Opening Cromwell is insanely perceptive, calm, collected and strategic. He sees everything, responds to everything and takes care of every single meeting and encounter, not always flawlessly, but with relentless and close attention.

By the third book he slips. Rarely in anything big and rarely anything a modern career politician would even call a slip, but there are small events he misses, inferences and warnings and loyalties he mistakes or ignores or puts aside. You couldn't really show that in a less-detailed story.

Nevertheless, parts of these books, especially the last one, are tenseboring. With the simultaneous tension and severe boredom of a compulsory work event where someone is about to be fired.


A nice thing about doing an insanely deep dive into history is that we can get an image of events as a whole echoing up and down the scale of incident, from glances and looks all the way to armies marching and great religious changes, which gives you a picture of history that no historian could give you (because they in good conscience could never make up all the incidental detail) and which exists in a polarity between the fact that the incidents and moments are all certainly fake, but the way reality works in the story is probably more like the way reality actually works than a more systematic history.

In a history using true facts you must stick only to what is known recorded and confirmed. Which is accurate but false, because history is taking place at every level simultaneously. Whereas in a story you can add back in the "missing" scales of events and produce a whole picture more accurate in its mechanics, even if not in its details.

The era really helps with this as you have the medieval quality of kings, queens feudal and deeply personal power structures, so every political decision is a personal one, and visa versa. But you also have the birth of modern systems and structures. So you can see the effects of this highly personal and human structure of history echoing through the bureaucratic and state structures which we recognise - i.e. courtrooms and bills of parliament - which all leave records.

In the book Henry instantly takes against Ann of Cleaves because she fails to notice him and then fails to disguise a flinch at his ageing and bloated body. Relationship done from that point on. Which means the map of Europe doesn't change in a certain way and Euro-politics shifts.

So maybe that isn't the exact reason Henry didn't like Ann of Cleaves. And maybe it wasn't down to one incident, but whatever the reason was, it was personal and intimate and human. (Whilst also being geo-political. Every scale at once.)


Interesting thing about Henry in his swings from nearly-sympathetic to grotesque insane woman-destroying deluded narcissist.

His mad personality, which I took to be textbook narcissism; relentless manipulation, gaslighting everyone,  utterly self-absorbed with delusions (though if you are the King I suppose they are not delusions) of grandeur and seemingly no real core to his personality..

A lot of this looks like a relatively sane adaptation to his life.

He has never ever had a meaningful degree of privacy. To sleep alone he has a secret room built where he can go and hide after his official putting-to-bed ceremony. Everyone around him, and I mean absolutely everyone, wants something from him or is trying to manipulate him somehow. He is the chief executive of England during an insanely tumultuous period of history. He has been told by various religious authorities from birth that he was placed in his throne directly by God. He is trapped between powerful and strongly competing axis of power, both at home and internationally and, other than some Patronage or bullshit, has relatively little to offer them. He has won the game of thrones but it never actually ends and he can still lose it and there are a huge number of people around him who, if they could quietly dispose of him, they would.

If I imagine any normal person being in that position they would but utterly totally bugfuck insane. Imagine being the Sovereign Head of a nation while living in the Big Brother House while your courtiers basically throw women at you in the hope one will catch your eye.

His narcissistic qualities and instability, while horrible and terrifying, (and he is absolutely a monster) make perfect sense considering his condition of life.


Mantel has spoken about this but in some ways the bodies of Kings and Princesses and Queens are more like the bodies of beasts than of humans. People talk about them the same way you would talk about a favourite racehorse or about a slave. They are bodies of utility. They have a use, a purpose vital to a huge range of people and everyone is reasonably interested in whether they will fulfil it.

Henry's leg injury really isn't just an injury, it’s the future of England, because it is almost certainly slowly killing him, and it’s is Englands miserable and anguished present, because if the King is in almost constant low-level pain, and if he can't exercise, like he has every day of his life, so he gets fat, then that means that his formerly bad-but-manageable qualities get darker and darker and darker.

The mood of the Sovereign shapes the court, and they shape the nation. If the King is in pain, vulnerable and angry and fucked-up, then that shows quite literally in the lives of his subjects.

The bodies of women are violated and examined also. Virgin or not? Child capable or not? As attractive as the portrait or not? Pregnant or not? Losing the baby, lost the baby, keeping the baby? Can she get the King hard? Too much sexual experience (turn off), or not enough (doesn't know what to do in bed)?

In the middle book, Henry asks "Am I not a man like other men?" And the answer is no, he isn't. If enough power or potential advantage is centred in your body then you are a kind of beast.


Henry ultimately tires of, and then arranges (passively, at a distance) the execution of Thomas Cromwell. Which is almost an act but almost like simply removing his protection since, by this point, Cromwells enemies are like an ocean being held back by Henrys will.

Was Henry right to kill him (he, Cromwell)?

He (Henry), is narcissistic, shallow and deluded, but not stupid.

Cromwell has a tripartite mind. There is what he says and what people remark on him saying and doing both in the scene, moment to moment, when we can be reasonably sure that we are seeing the base level of reality, and the increasingly bloated shadow-self of rumours, implications, lies, suppositions and just general bullshit that follows him.

So one; Base Reality, what is done and said out loud.

Two; Accountancy. The first unspoken part of his mind.

Throughout the entirety of the books everyone remarks on how hard Cromwell works and what a capacious mind his has, especially for numbers, finance and organisation.

We never hear Cromwell think about numbers in his head in any systematic way. We never actually go through any of these acts of organisation or paperwork, we only come to him in the quiet pauses between systematic and goal-oriented acts of bureaucracy.

This is I think almost entirely a literary artefact. In the same way that people in films almost never go to the toilet and end conversations unnaturally quickly by just walking away, its just a curiosity of the form. A necessary mediocrity of popular biography. Most people worth doing biographies of are interesting because they are insanely good at complex, difficult, hyper-specialised and often rather penumbral things, but those things are hard to explain to a general public (even if the Biographer thinks they understand them themselves), so the texture of many of these peoples lives in Biography ends up being about commonly shared emotions. Which isn't a lie, but a half-truth.

As such its nearly not worth mentioning. Except that it should be noted as an element. And secondly, it forms a penumbra of shadows that lets Mantell, and her creation, hide from Cromwels true nature.

We may choose not to speak of things because they are dull or because the wouldn't work in the story, but regardless of the practicality of it, still there are things we are not speaking of. And that creates a shadow.

There are easy half-clever answers to this; “Duugh nerd online upset that book about accountant has no accountancy in it duuhh.” But sometimes asking really dumb-simple questions cracks open more subtle flaws.

Three; The Deep Dark. Things he hides even from himself.

We know for certain that Cromwell can occupy two different mental realities simultaneously. Its almost a theme of the book. During his rise he is warned multiple times that he is surrounded by enemies and that the King will inevitably destroy him.

On some level he knows absolutely this is true. He advises one of his closest advisors, with no paper trail, to set up a financial system to protect his loved ones with hidden cash after he is gone. Later, towards the end of The Mirror and the Light (the third book), just after he is made an Earl and is publicly celebrating, he addresses the same man and re-confirms the immediate necessity of this network and urges him into action.

It’s not mere dissimulation; believing one thing and pretending another. He plans, thinks, lives and acts simultaneously in two worlds, one visible to us, and one dark both to us, and almost, to him.

He genuinely asks himself questions about why he does things, and we can be in his head as he asks them.

Cromwells visible mind almost never speaks, or even *thinks* a word of potential treason against, or contempt for, the King. Those are thoughts and ideas he simply cannot allow himself to have. But we see by the churning of his reactions and his outbursts in moments of stress that they are there, and increasingly consuming.

The dark world surfaces at moments. When Henry is in a sad but trusting mood and considering the future, Cromwell inwardly urges him to make him, Cromwell, Regent. To do so immediately, to sign and seal it.

So was Cromwell planning to, as his accusers put it; dispose of the King, marry his Daughter Mary and rule as king himself?

Its the most insane, deranged plan imaginable. Mary was a crazed hyper-Catholic and Cromwell a materialistic proto-protestant. The entire nobility would revolt. The population would revolt. Probably someone would invade. There was fuck all chance of it working.

Yes, he, Mantells Cromwell, probably was.

Speaking purely of the character, and not the historical personage.

I doubt he had a plan, a list of things to do or problems to solve or overcome, or even a direct and inwardly spoken thought towards it. But we know Cromwell can plan without planning, leaving routes through paths of darkness, potentialities which need not be spoken of or obviously driven towards, but only "accepted" at the point where, after much manoeuvring and cutting of off other choices, they become the only reasonable remaining path.

I doubt he would have assassinated Henry, but he might well have let him die, or allowed him to put himself in some high-risk situation and been absent at the right time.

We can be certain, as Henry says, that Cromwell never forgave him for the destruction of Woolsey. And everyone else who worked that destruction is dead.

And then? Have the Regency as 'protector' of Henry's son. Bring Mary into his orbit as her protector. At least in this fiction some kind of mutual attraction is part of that relationship.

Would or could even fictional Cromwell have married Mary? Fuck knows. That part is utterly insane. But maybe he thinks he has the charisma and intelligence to control her.

And then, a protestant succession, either his child with Mary, Henry's heir, raised by him, or his own son.

A mad plan and an unlikely one, which is what causes everyone in the book, including Henry to disbelieve it. But yes Cromwell would probably have tried it and, at least in this fiction, Henry was probably right to suspect it and was probably right to kill Cromwell.


I mean yes because he is fiction, but maybe a better way of saying it is is he a dishonest fake? Is he a deception?

Later in the book, even Mantel seems to half-realise that the Cromwell she has created is a kind of shadow, not a replication, someone with Cromwells form but a soul made by her, a soul made when she was in school probably, where she was terrorised by Nuns and first learnt about Cromwells existence. He became her invisible champion and instrument of revenge.

you have to be beware of good writing because it obscures so much, and more dangerously, it can half-answer questions in such a subtle and elegant way that is hides the fact that the questions has not been truly answered at all.

So; "Is this a biased version of history?"

"Well yes but its told from inside Cromwells head from his moral point of view so obviously that inflects things a lot."

But what about, even accounting for that, what if the cumulative effect of mild shifts in viewpoint or, most deadly; partial forgettings in what would seem to be a complete tale, what if that is actually more deceiving than you think it is? What if hidden inside the construct of a semi-reliable narrator is a tilted mirror showing the world askew and not admitting it, hiding itself inside the actors mask?

There have been many points listening to this trilogy and to "A Place of Greater Safety", Mantels book about the French revolution, where I felt as if I had brushed up against the bones of another history buried beneath her  deep and sympathetic characters. Where a fact or a nodule of truth poked through, something that couldn't reasonably be edited or changed, but it struck against the flow and moral substance of the characters Mantel had created, as if it wasn't something these people would do or say. It felt ajar.

But of course, it was something those people did do and did say. It didn't fit with the characters of the story because they were slightly falsely humanistic. Too deep, too subtle. Not avaricious or nasty or stupid or brutal, because Mantels monsters come cloaked in poetry and misty memories.

Mantels Cromwell muses endlessly on his dead daughters and dead wife so when he's doing something horrible and unsympathetic, oh well, press the dead wife button. We see all the ways he conflicts with his own time in ways that are appealing to ours; yes of course women should be educated, yes of course ridiculous trick miracles should be banned.

Mantels men chew through a lot of women and they come out looking pretty good doing it. Cromwell accuses Norfolk, one of his chief frenemies, of being essentially a pimp for the King, which is true. But every influential councillor is effectively a pimp for the King, including Cromwell, and Cromwell doesn't just provide women, he kills them too.

We lend evil men poetry because it makes for a good story, and they are drama-creation machines, and fascinating to watch but a thing I've come to believe it that evil people, once you pull away the last mask there's really not much there. Which sounds like a C of E truism from my youth, but its actually true, and modern culture inadvertently engages in the myth-building of the poetic scumbag as a kind of strange cumulative ritual. Artists and writers and others fall over themselves to clothe these fuckers in tragedy and noble sentiment and I think its largely a lie.

In the books Cromwell is consistently painted as a ruthless but effective man who uses violence  only when necessary and that to a limited degree. Bad yes, and manipulative but better than his king and better than his enemies.

Curious thing about Mantel is how Cromwells self-belief starts to break down, and am I imagining it, or was Mantels belief in the Cromwell she had created breaking down at the same time?

Classic fall from grace literature stuff. After so many fights and deals, Cromwell has compromised himself so many times (always in a good cause from our perspective), that he is no longer 'himself'. That is, he is no longer the man we met at the start. The boy who was shocked by the burning of a heretic is now watching calmly as his own group burns people, even people he secretly thinks are right. The man who's memory of his wife and daughters often drove him to try to protect women is now more aware that he is essentially a pimp for the king and feeds Henry women to destroy, and sometimes destroys them for him.

That’s the characters fall as an artefact of literature.

The last book isn't just events, its reinvestigation.

While he's in his cell in the final part Cromwell is told about confession and reminded that his last confession should be a chance to go over the whole of his life till now and look into his own shit and work out what he did wrong and apologise to god for it.

He tells them he is well aware.

which he is because the whole of the last book is not just things happening but Cromwell re-investigating his own history, remembering and re-remembering his life, even events we have already seen, but now seen from outside, or seen again, and the picture this paints of him is someone darker, and deeper and colder than he would ever let himself believe himself to be in previous books.

He didn't "get into a fight" when young and accidentally stab someone. He stalked them and gutted them and tried to hide the body and fucked that up.

Did he assassinate that guy in Rome after all? We don't know but we suspect he did.

Would he have tried to fuck his Sons wife after setting them up together, as his son feared? Who knows?

Is he really a protector of women? Or is he part of the machinery of their destruction? How much is he complicit in what the King does? Is he softening the rule of a brutal man, or just assisting it?

How many houses does he actually need?

So that combines Cromwells investigation of self, with Mantels re-investigation of Cromwell,

Is it also Mantel re-integrating her fictional beast with the jagged bones of History? Making her delusion actually Cromwells self-delusion, knitting them back together before the headsmans axe bites down?

I don't know.


  1. I recently rewatched the BBC adaptation (the book is on the shelves somewhere, waiting for a backlog to clear).

    I now want to make a mni-game using as many different fictional portrayals of Cardinal Wolsey as possible.

  2. I haven't read any of the books, but this just put them somewhere on the top of my "want to read"-list.

  3. Your book reviews are genuinely my favorite part of your blog. They're insightful and generous and sharp. I'm definitely going to check this out for myself, and I feel that reading it the first time with the benefit of this perspective will be especially interesting. <3 ~Vulnavia