Thursday, August 29, 2013

Expendable and Indispensable: Bring Up the Bodies

Expendable like the Tudor wives (even worse: four out of Henry VIII’s six wives were disposed of); and indispensable like the king’s wily chief minister and âme damnée Thomas Cromwell.

It took me two months to finish reading Bring up the Bodies, a 482 page historical novel written by British writer Hilary Mantel. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall (which I haven’ read) and Cromwell is the main character in both novels. Having read Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII and seen countless movies on the titillating Tudor period, I enjoyed Mantel’s contribution to the saga for which she won the Man Booker Prize.

I labored through the first one hundred pages of the book. I was confused by Mantel’s writing style. Her constant use of pronouns is often confounding. Cromwell, the central character is referred to as “he” in the present tense. When there is a dialogue between Cromwell and other individuals, it is hard to figure out who says what. For the sake of clarity, she adds “Cromwell” to “he”. So it reads: “he, Cromwell”.

The book focuses on Cromwell’s wheeling and dealing during the year 1536. He was Henry VIII’s political, religious and marital “fixer”. Cromwell’s main tasks were to prepare the ground for Henry VIII’s third marriage, break with the pope and seize the assets of the Catholic Church, and as importantly increase his own wealth and prestige. The king had taken a fancy to Jane Seymour; second wife Anne Boleyn had to be discarded for him to wed his new love interest. The book ends with six dead bodies in the Tower of London: Queen Anne, her haughty brother and her four alleged lovers.

Henry appears as vain and cruel but romantic (he was in love with five of his six wives!), dithering and a religiously insecure monarch very dependent on Cromwell. At the same time, he often acts like a sneaky and spoiled child, a bon vivant driven by his emotions. Although obsessed by his perceived declining libido, Henry has a one-track mind: he wants a male heir and will resort to murder to achieve his aim. This being said, six time-married Henry was canny and smart enough to stay on the throne for nearly forty years!

Mantel relishes in revealing Cromwell’s shrewdness and swiftness in disposing the burdensome wife and she gives a virtuoso rendering of Anne Boleyn’s downfall and demise. A complex individual, Anne Boleyn is hard to read. The darling of 21st century feminist historians and novelists, she had few friends at the Tudor court. Like the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra before her, she got very bad press from her contemporaries. Her ambition-driven ways made powerful enemies even in her own extended family. Anne was a woman with a past, a mercurial queen probably too smart for her own good. The book makes clear that by stepping in male territory she was taking risks. From time immemorial, royal wives have first and foremost been valued for their reproductive capacity with a bonus for those able to produce a healthy male heir. Royal consorts are two-legged wombs, ideally blue blood and low maintenance. Anne did not fit the role, and Henry got tired of her. Even by the royal standards of the time, the wives of Henry VIII had a short shelf life.

In the book, Anne epitomizes the demanding and nagging wife. Her successive miscarriages combined with the rumors of her infidelity ended the king’s affection for her. Exit the self-confident Anne, enter the compassionate, modest and plain Jane.

Cromwell, the smooth operator orchestrated six perfect and swift trials on seemingly fabricated charges, and endeared himself to Henry. In the British islands, Cromwell is an awe-inspiring surname. Thomas is the first bearing the name. The second was his nephew Richard who became a military dictator and a very unsavory individual during the Puritan Revolution. Thomas Cromwell is often described as canny, shrewd, mean, evil, villainous, devious, ruthless, lustful and greedy. Mantel describes his skillfulness and no-nonsense approach to the Tudor bedroom politics. She also highlights his efficient handling of the Reformation, the break from Rome and its meddling pope.

Beheading was the Tudor punishment of choice for the elite. The rich Catholic Church was de facto beheaded by Cromwell. Exit the pope. Henry, although still a practicing Catholic, became the head the Church of England and was no longer challenged by a counter power. The impounding of monasteries and church income was a financial windfall for the king and for his efficient chief minister.

                         Bring up the Bodies Continental Style

In crushing the church and enhancing the monarchy, Cromwell took a page out of the book of another advocatus diaboli, Guillaume of Nogaret, in early 14th century France. Both Nogaret and Cromwell were civil servants and commoners, had studied law and took no prisoners when serving their kings.

Nogaret was a colorful character. His services were also generously rewarded with titles and lands by the French King Philippe IV the Fair. As a matter of fact he was the lord of my village, Calvisson, in the south of France. Philippe had a prickly relationship with the pope at the time. He resented Rome’s theocracy and meddling in national affairs. Not only did Philippe want more elbow room but he was short of funds to bolster his authority and modernize his administration. He dreamed of submitting the clergy to his authority in order to grab a share of church income. Nogaret was a very hands-on operator. As such he was dispatched to Italy to abduct the pope; during the scuffle he allegedly slapped the pope’s face. The helpless pope died soon after the episode. A pro-French successor was elected.

However Nogaret is primarily remembered for his key role in wiping out the order of the Knight Templars. The Templars were monks and soldiers; the Crusades over they had diversified into banking and other commercial pursuits. The Knight Templars were operating all over Europe, but were most influential in France. Philippe, who owed money to the Templars wanted to get rid of them and confiscate their assets. Fabricated charges of heresy, blasphemy and sodomy were brought against the order’s leaders. Thanks to false confessions and betrayals the dismissal of the order was swift. The leaders were slowly burnt at the stake. Legend has it that the grand master cursed the king, Nogaret and the pope for his lack of support.

The three of them died unexpectedly soon after. Nogaret’s death was particularly gruesome with a twisted body and a tongue thrust out.

Philippe the Fair had only one wife. However, his reign ended with a sex scandal of royal proportion. His three sons were cuckold. The daughters-in-law’s lovers were tortured, castrated, skinned while alive and finally hanged. The princesses were locked away in a fortress. When Philippe died, the three future kings were without wife and without heirs.

Bring up the bodies on both side of the English Channel!

I                          Indispensable but Expendable

Nogaret died before becoming expendable but Cromwell’s good fortune ended in 1540. Like Anne Boleyn, Cromwell met his death on the scaffold, regrettably in the hand of an unexperienced executioner a “ragged and butcherly miser” as a witness wrote at the time. This will be the topic of Mantel’s last novel of her Cromwell trilogy

thomas        guillaume
Thomas Cromwell (By Holbein).                 Guillaume de Nogaret (anonymous).
                                          SEPARATED AT BIRTH