The Mirror and the Light

Thoughts on finally finishing the last part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy

More determined readers finished it long ago, but I only did so yesterday, and thought I would offer some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final book of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I suppose I should say “spoiler alert”, but of course there aren’t any spoilers there. We know exactly how the book ends. (And indeed I have blogged about a straight-up biography of Cromwell here.) For Dame Hilary’s readers, it is the journey, not the destination, that matters.

And what a journey it is! The book is well over 850 pages long. To be honest, it really should have been two books. I went into it a huge fan of Dame Hilary and, to anticipate, I come out of it a huge fan still; but my commitment has been sorely tested. There is, inevitably, a mind-boggling amount of detail about the events of Cromwell’s years of power and then his downfall ― indeed, only a sample of the events, as some strands of the historical Cromwell’s story are worn down to barely perceptible threads. But, in addition, the narrative gets lost in meditations ― Cromwell’s or Dame Hilary’s narrator’s, it is characteristically hard to tell; meditations on time and place, on fate and memory, on life and death. It may well be that this sense of being caught in a maze of events, perhaps inconsequential, and reveries, likely fateful ― in a sprawling house full of hidden recesses and secret passages and dark basements filled with secreted relics and not a few skeletons, like Cromwell’s Austin Friars ― is exactly what Dame Hilary wants her reader to feel. (She gives an account of her thoughts on these things in Reith Lectures, which I highly recommend.) But, for all the mastery with which it is delivered, and for all the depth of the thoughts ― to some of which I return below ―, it is sometimes too much.

But, as the story breaks out of the maze at last, in the last 150 or so pages, and speeds up to its inevitable conclusion on Tower Hill, its telling is at a level that few writers can even hope to ever achieve. The reader knows what is coming, of course: the fall, the Tower, the scaffold. Denied the possibility to surprise, Dame Hilary must entrance the reader; she sets herself a seemingly impossible task: how can you tell a man’s execution, especially when her writing, as always, is very much inside her character’s mind, this inimitable hybrid between a third- and a first-person narration that the readers of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will remember? Well, you and I couldn’t, but Dame Hilary can. In the real Cromwell’s life much remains unknown, caught in the record only as a reflection or a shadow. For Dame Hilary’s readers, it will be impossible to imagine that events unfolded in a way different than the one she conjectures, or indeed that Cromwell’s thoughts were not those she imputes to him.


Let me say something about these thoughts, and others that Dame Hilary explores. I don’t imagine that she meant to write about our current moment in particular. For one thing that would be diminishing what is really a timeless literary achievement. For another, as brilliant as she is at imagining the past, I don’t suppose that Dame Hilary can see the future, and after all she worked on The Mirror and the Light a long time, starting when the world was still a different, and in some ways a more innocent place. So, to repeat, the book is no allegory for the present. Yet so much of it seems to be about 2020, not 1540.

Of course there are meditations on the law. Dame Hilary studied law, and her Cromwell is very much a lawyer. (So are the protagonists of her excellent early novel about the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety ― Danton, Dumoulin, and Robespierre.) There is this, on retroactive law, and on due process more generally:

A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up. ‘Bear in mind his Majesty’s remarkable foresight, at the trial of the late queen. He knew the sentence before the verdict was in.’

And process is again all-important at the end, as Cromwell is arrested and charged with fanciful, made-up transgressions: “‘Valentines? Sorcerers? Any jury would laugh you out of court.’ But, he thinks, there will be no jury. There will be no trial. They will pass a bill to put an end to me. I cannot complain of the process. I have used it myself.”

In the end, Dame Hilary’s Cromwell becomes a sort of critical legal scholar:

Rats have eaten the laws of ancient times. They relish fish-glue and vellum; anything that was once alive, they will eat it, and then out of habit, they will eat what is dead; from the margins they chew their way in, to the secret history of England. It is the glory of the men who have worked with Cromwell that instead of merely cursing the vermin they have patched, they have mended, they have stretched a point to replace a gnawed vowel; they have been ready to substitute a digested phrase with a clause that will help the crown. But what has it availed? He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.

Perhaps what we have come to call the Rule of Law is better, then.

Beyond law, there are reflections on power ― princely power, of course, but I think we must ask how they apply to power exercised not only by monarchs but also by electorates or even by online mobs. In the very beginning, at the execution of Anne Boleyn, Cromwell turns on the Duke of Suffolk, who demands to know why he did not force Anne’s father to witness it. He insists that he must protect the King from being needlessly cruel: “[i]f you love the king … , pay some heed to his soul. One day he will stand before God and answer for every subject.” But can a man who uses and abuses the law as Dame Hilary’s Cromwell does truly say that he pays heed to the King’s soul? He does not seem to ask himself these questions, not until it is too late and he realizes that for “ten years I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper”. But we must.

The sovereign, perhaps, is not like the rest of us:

is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of the dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away. His blood is not his own, but ancient blood. His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake. His forefathers interrupt his sleep to castigate, to warn, to shake their heads in mute disappointment.

An electorate, a people, is not human either. It too is all these things, perhaps; it too is haunted.

Against power, there is also disobedience, and revolt. The Pilgrimage of Grace is at least a better-sounding name than populism, but is there much difference ― in reality, or in how those in power think about these things? The rebels think, or those who write about them say they think, that

[t]here was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.

Their leaders tell them that Henry has made himself God. Now if a child falls sick between Truro and Newcastle, they lay it at the king’s door; if a well dries, if the butter spoils, if a bucket leaks: everything that is out of joint with them, from a fall of hailstones to a cricked neck, they blame on the court and council. Their grievances run like streams underground, welling up from the Scots border to Dover, till the whole land is flooded with nonsense.

Finally, a constant theme in The Mirror and the Light, and an especially relevant one just now, is what can be said. After the run-in with Suffolk, Cromwell wonders if he has gone too far in rebuking the duke, but wonders: “if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” He also tells his son, shortly thereafter, that “[i]t is not wrong to speak your mind. On selected occasions. They make it painful for you. But you must do it.” Yet as the story unfolds, the selection of the occasions grows ever stricter. He tells the King’s unloved, suspected daughter Mary “to compromise her conscience” to get back in his good graces. He knows that “of course she will despise herself afterwards. But that is the price. … [T]ime will ease the sting of it.” Dogma is uncertain and unsteady, but also deadly.

Corpus Christi is a miracle. It is a mystery. Once consecrated, the host contains your God, alive: the wine is his blood. You cannot hope to understand it but you must believe it. And if you fail to believe it you must keep quiet, because your failure can kill you.

Even the archbishop of Canterbury is afraid:

“[O]nce the bill is passed, none of us will preach on the Blessed Sacrament, its nature. We dare not. We would not know what it is safe to say, without being tripped by the law and cited for heresy.” This is what the king calls concord: an enforced silence.

Henry VIII has disciples in our own time, and people are afraid of them as the Bishop Robert Barnes was afraid of the enforcers of Henry’s shape-shifting orthodoxy: “It’s not his faith, but his temperament that will fail. He is not Luther. Here he stands: till Gardiner knocks him across the room.” Others too feel they “are living on borrowed time, in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert; … sleep[ing] lightly and some nights hardly at all.” In the end, Cromwell decides that he cannot speak the truth, certainly nothing like the whole truth, at his own turn on the block. For the sake of his son, his nephew, his friends, he speaks little, and says less.

A little earlier, as he awaits his execution, Cromwell imagines Heaven and Hell. “When he pictures Hell he can only think of a cold place, a wasteland, a wharf, a marsh, a landing stage; Walter” ― his abusive father ―

distantly bawling, then the bawling coming nearer. That is how it will be – not pain itself, but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn’t help and didn’t even know was wrong; and the discord in Hell will be constant, repeating for ever and ever, a violent argument being carried on in the next room.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


Anyway, read the book. Skip the middle 500 pages if you must, but do read it. You won’t be sorry.

Such a Person

A recent biography highlights (some of) Thomas Cromwell’s influence on the constitution

I have just finished reading Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch’s very interesting Thomas Cromwell: A Life, and thought I’d share some of its constitutional history highlights. Inevitably, I suppose, for a book written by a religious historian, Sir Diarmaid’s telling of Cromwell’s life and times focuses more on religious issues than on legal or, say, economic ones. No doubt this serves to emphasize aspects of the story to which others (including Hilary Mantel, the source of prior knowledge about Cromwell for me and, I suspect, for many others) devote less attention.

At the same time, I was at times wishing for a little less theological detail, and a bit more about the other aspects of Cromwell’s story. For example, one Cromwellian innovation of whose origins constitutional lawyers today should be at least approximatively aware since it bears the name of Cromwell’s royal master are Henry VIII clauses, which allow the Crown to make rules that will override and have the force of statutes enacted by Parliament. Yet Sir Diarmaid refers to the legislation in which such power was granted to Henry VIII, the Statute of Proclamations, only in passing in the conclusion of the book. From a lawyer’s perspective, this is disappointing – though of course Sir Diarmaid doesn’t set out to speak to lawyers in particular. In any case, here are some of the legally-relevant nuggets.

Probably the most significant constitutional legacy that Sir Diarmaid attributes (in part) to Cromwell has to do with Parliament’s role. The great changes of Henry VIII’s reign ― above all the break with Rome and the manifold interventions in the affairs of the English Church were ratified by Parliament. Other reforms, in the law and in social policy, were implemented or at least attempted to be implemented through acts of Parliament too. As Sir Diarmaid points out,

[t]his intensive use of Parliament in the 1530s, a crucial moment in its consolidation and growth when many other such assemblies in Europe were atrophying, had implications not merely for the religious future of Tudor England, but for the shape of national history thereafter. When, over the next 400 years, other European commonwealths evolved into something like nations, it was usually through an exercise of will by monarchs who felt little need of their medieval representative assemblies. Cromwell the Parliamentary veteran is the most likely candidate for having promoted Parliament in the kingdom of England at this moment. (236)

The consequence of Cromwell’s involvement of Parliament into the great matters of state was that

[t]he King’s leading men were far more frequently Parliament men from the 1530s – more precisely, they became Commons men, if a peerage did not bar them and provide a seat in the other place. … From Thomas Cromwell’s time onwards, royal advisers mostly knew what it was to sit through the squabbles, the excitement and the tedium of a Tudor Parliamentary session. (547)

Related to this transformation of Parliament from occasional forum in which consent to taxation might be generated (in return for the airing and, perhaps, redress of grievance) to a central policy-making instrument, is another Cromwellian innovation that is still with us today: by-elections. These aren’t particularly necessary when a Parliament only sits for a brief period and then is dissolved. But “in a Parliament which eventually sat over an extraordinary and unprecedented seven years”, (215) they were a most useful device. It is Cromwell who came up with it, in 1532-33.

Cromwell’s influence is also still felt in the legislative process. He hadn’t come up with the idea, but embraced and regular the use of

what was then a very recent innovation in Parliamentary procedure. It has become known as a ‘division’, and is the method by which Lords and Commons vote at Westminster right up to the present day: separating out ayes and noes into their respective groups. Until the 1520s, decisions in Parliament were customarily taken by the same ancient procedure which elected knights and burgesses to the Commons: acclamation, or, to put it another way, shouting very loudly. The louder shout won. This procedure worked best when (as in well-regulated committees throughout history) there was already general agreement and the heat had been taken out of the issue in question. In circumstances of bitter disagreement, it became clumsy and contestable. The first recorded instance of a division was in contention over a royal tax demand in the 1523 Parliament … It is possible that the King’s advisers had used the division as a way of flushing out and making visible the core of the opposition. (159)

Cromwell had been one of the opposition in 1523; as a royal advisor, and the king’s agent in the House of Commons a decade later, he made use of the division himself. As Sir Diarmaid later explains

Unity was a prized good in medieval and Tudor England: division was an aberration from the norm, hence the government’s use of voting by division in Parliamentary proceedings as a way to shame people into conformity. (240)

Cromwell helped shaped not only the legislative, but also the executive branch of government. The Privy Council appears, officially, during his time as (in effect) Henry VIII’s chief minister. Sir Diarmaid notes that while the term “Privy Council” had been used earlier, “from 1537” it acquires a new meaning and refers to

a set number of people specifically named to that position, no more than twenty or so. The phrase continued into the early Stuart age to describe the main body for executive government, and still remains fossilized in the British governmental system. … [T]his newly formalized body sat not as a vehicle for [Cromwell’s] power, but to check it. The Privy Council’s further formalization, with its own clerk and minute-book, occurred immediately on his fall in 1540: a move designed to prevent any fresh Thomas Cromwell from emerging to usurp the power now distributed among Henry VIII’s closest advisers. (398)

Recent events have reminded us, of course that this Cromwellian, or rather anti-Cromwellian, innovation is “fossilized” in the Canadian governmental system too, as provided by section 11 of the Constitution Act, 1867clerk and all.

In addition to Parliament and the executive, left a mark on the judiciary too. Indeed he held a judicial office himself (while also occupying various positions in the other two branches): that of Master of the Rolls. As with Parliament, if perhaps even less predictably, Cromwell’s tenure proved a turning point since it had the effect of “as it turned out permanently transferring the Mastership of the Rolls from the domain of Chancery-trained clerics to lay common lawyers”. (271)

Another, and more sinister, long-lasting though thankfully expunged Cromwellian legacy was the first statute criminalizing “buggery”. Its causes, in fact, were partly related to the competition between the lay and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Sir Diarmaid explains that

After the Papacy had created a body of canon law and church courts to administer it in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such matters of morality as this had been the concern of church lawyers in the Western Church, and not of the King’s courts. The Act was the first major encroachment in England on that general principle, a phenomenon which occurred right across sixteenth-century Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike. (241)

But the conflict wasn’t just jurisdictional. The statute appears to have been “directly linked” to the perception, among English protestants, of “the unnaturalness of clerical celibacy generally [and] monastic corruption in particular, and so … looks like a new try-out in Cromwell’s programme of intervention in the affairs of monasteries and friaries”. (241) But of course the criminalization was not limited to wayward monks and friars. Innocent men were collateral damage in this fight – though it is perhaps naïve to think that, but for it, homosexuality would not have been criminalized.

Of course, Cromwell was on the side, or rather the chief instrument, of repression in other ways too. Disagreement with the policies he steered through Parliament at his royal master’s behest was not welcome:

If the official theory of the 1530s ran that the realm was united with one voice as expressed in Parliament, once this expression had been made anyone dissenting was not a true subject, or churchman, lord, knight or burgess. The fate of such individuals could be dire. If Cromwell crafted the rhetoric, he was also put in charge of enforcing the consequences. (236)

And, still on the subject of repression of dissenters, it is impossible to speak of Cromwell without also speaking of Thomas More. In Sir Diarmaid’s telling, neither man comes out well. Before he became the great symbol of freedom of conscience, More was in his capacity as Lord Chancellor a devotee of persecution. As he

felt himself increasingly boxed in and at odds with the King’s plans, he turned to waging implacable war on enemies of the Church whom he could crush without inhibition. Gone were the days of Cardinal Wolsey, when no one was burned at the stake for heresy: More had a positive relish for burning heretics. Since 1529, he had been saying so at savage length in print, in flat rejection of Wolsey’s conciliatory line, and although claims by angry Protestants of the next generation that he personally tortured heretics have no evidence to back them up, his words now became Church policy. (160)

Indeed, More had a “strong sense of being caught up in a cosmic battle for the soul of Europe between the Papacy and the forces of Antichrist”. (161) He has, of course, been fortunate in his biographers―but the real, historical More seems to have been closer to the sour and stern character depicted by Dame Hilary than to the hero whom so many, myself included, have long admired.

For all that, there is little doubt that More’s execution was nothing more than judicial murder. Sir Diarmaid writes that Cromwell

choreographed the judicial procedures which briskly led to More’s execution. The court’s decision was based on evidence from Richard Rich, Solicitor-General and already firmly within Cromwell’s circle of patronage, in front of jurors carefully picked by Master Secretary [one of Cromwell’s titles]. Few historical accounts have managed to make the tale of Rich’s career anything better than despicable in its opportunism and chameleon-like profession of religious belief; he is likely to have distorted what he had heard in interviews with More. (279; reference omitted)

Sir Diarmaid notes that Cromwell seems to have felt rather terrible about the whole thing:

in Cromwell’s jottings of remembrances for action … he could not bring himself to name More in relation to the business of execution … [T]he note read “When Master Fisher shall go to execution, and also the other”. (280)

Perhaps it would be unfair to say “crocodile tears”. Yet even if Cromwell’s conflicted feelings were genuine, that hardly reduces his responsibility for putting a man to death for his beliefs (however fanatical and they may otherwise have been), and in a perversion of the legal process.

Cromwell was, then, a paradoxical figure in constitutional history. He was a man who abetted royal authoritarianism, including in its murderous tendencies, of which he would himself become a victim. But he was also a man who ultimately could claim the credit for aggrandizing Parliament and setting it on the trajectory that would lead, first, to a confrontation with the Crown in which, under the leadership of a Cromwell’s nephew’s great-grandson, Parliament would judicially murder Henry VIII’s nephew’s grandson, Charles I, and then to finally securing dominance over the Crown a century and a half after Cromwell’s downfall. Not that Cromwell would necessarily have been pleased with any of that. It is perhaps for the best that we do not know the consequences of our actions.