Working Class Hero: Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies

Exploring the man behind Hilary Mantel's triumphant Bring Up The Bodies

In Mantel’s second offering in the Cromwellian trilogy, we’re brought with immediacy back into the Tudor realm of back room dealings and cutthroat court politics. We pick up where Wolf Hall left us; Henry having just taken his first glimpse at the unassuming Lady Jane Seymour, and England in possession of a new religion and a new Queen, both the handiwork of Thomas Cromwell.  

Looking at the protagonist of Mantel’s award winning books, one wonders why such a traditionally evaded character proves to suddenly be so intriguing. Britain’s historical narrative is one strewn with the murderous Kings and ruthless advisors who’ve morphed into the pantomime like villains of our history classes and Shakespearean plays, but we seem to be in the throes of a renaissance for these characters, an acknowledgment that nothing is ever black or white, no one ever singularly good or evil. 

The importance Mantel places on dialogue in the books propels the story, seldom stopping for a moment’s breath. The tenacity Cromwell shows, his natural skill as a linguist and master of words, his ability to twist and disfigure any sentiment to fit his needs, claim him as a man before his time. He’d have felt just as at ease within the egotistical 80’s inner-city boardroom, and given the likes of The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker a sure run for his money in brutality and intimidation. 

The reason Cromwell fits so easily into any high powered, greasy and manipulative world, is because he was and would remain an outsider, an intruder into the privileged, power-wielding classes of the gentry. To consider the period within which he managed to make a name for himself, is to look upon a world obsessed and principled by a hierarchy of birth and status that was pretty impenetrable. 

Yet Cromwell, the son of a Putney blacksmith, who left the shores of England in his teens to fight in foreign wars, returned some ten years later to successfully make a name for himself within the mercantile and legal circles of London, and would one day become one of the most important and powerful men in the country, second only to the King. He’d clearly been blessed with the gift of the gab, and a sturdy sense of self worth and ability. 

Mantel’s narrative, her choice to relay the events of those strained three weeks in British history through Cromwell’s consciousness and internal voice, instantly humanises the man. The opening lines of the book see him observing the flight of his falcons, named after his dead daughters, watching as they soar and fall through the sky. 

Cromwell is a man haunted by many a ghost, and as Mantel draws us further into the poisonous atmosphere of the Tudor court, we can continue to marvel at the callousness of the individual, but also wonder at the exhaustive nature of his life, the grief and pain he kept as a part of him long after the loss of his most loved, “You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.” Before everything else, Mantel reminds us that he was a husband, and a father, and seemingly a good one at that. 

The popularity of the books, the level of demand and esteem that led to Mantel being the first woman to ever win the Man Booker Prize twice, have morphed into a RSC production currently in motion, and talk of a future BBC television series in the pipeline. The intrigue and relevance of the man are clearly as potent today as they ever were; and as we wait expectantly for the third and final instalment that chronicles his downfall, it could do to remember that Cromwell’s villainous name could be the result of a working class man, who just didn’t seem to ‘know his place’. After all, history can only ever be written by the survivors. 

Illustration by Tamara Jade-Kaz