Mantel’s mission in her trilogy is clear: a thorough exploration of the life and motivations of Thomas Cromwell, the Master Secretary to England’s King Henry VIII (part two of the series begins in 1535). A man of many talents, Cromwell has risen from poverty to power, leaving both friends and enemies in his wake as he becomes the one Henry turns to when he wants something accomplished—in this case, a way out of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Unable to provide the son she promised after their long pre-nuptial dance in front of all of England, including the break from the Church in Rome and the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Anne has become a burden. The king has grown weary of the woman who so enchanted him, looking to another for an opportunity to sire the much-desired male heir to the throne.
Just as Cromwell was given the untidy task of detaching Henry from Katherine, now he must assemble a logical construction of facts to facilitate Anne’s removal from the throne. The Master Secretary never underestimates his adversaries, aware of Anne’s uncanny ability, even now, to turn Henry to her cause. Yet she seems strangely oblivious that the tide has turned as Cromwell interviews courtiers and handmaidens, gathering damning evidence of careless words and foolish entanglements. The story is a familiar one, but Cromwell is more of an enigma, unforgiving of those who were instrumental in Cardinal Woolsey’s downfall, suspicious of the ambitious Boleyns and the equally covetous Seymours waiting to assume that family’s place, the virginal Jane Seymour tempting to a king sated with a jaded queen’s histrionics.
Most of the action in this second volume happens over a few short weeks. Cromwell carefully monitors the king’s emotional temperament while performing the delicate art of bringing down a queen. Filled with the notable characters of Henry Tudor’s reign, from the martyred Thomas More to the conniving Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who dreams of Cromwell’s fall from grace, the political playing field is rife with self-seekers, opportunists and those who understand the wisdom of siding with the king in all matters. Cromwell is one step ahead of sycophants, detractors and political enemies, worldly enough to anticipate the slyest of maneuvers and bold enough to strike in a timely manner.
An anomaly in a castle of well-born nobles, Cromwell’s authority is often a bitter pill for them to swallow, risen from abject poverty to sit at the right hand of the king of England. This man never forgets his roots or the dangers of his position, cajoling, persuading, arguing, massaging the egos of the powerful and the terrified, once more delivering a self-indulgent king his heart’s desire. With brutal honesty, Cromwell acts on his king’s behalf, never shirking from Henry Tudor’s outrageous demands nor sparing himself the harsh judgment of his actions, perched far too high not to eventually topple, no doubt the topic of the final book in Mantel’s luminous series.