It took longer to get things moving in Hilary Mantel's second book in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, but ultimately, the book was quite satisfying. The first was Wolf Hall, you can see my take on it here. She tells us about the low-born Thomas and his band of young men who try to impose order on Henry VIII's world; no small matter, given Henry's problem creating a male heir. When this one begins, Anne Boleyn has given birth to Elizabeth, and everyone is waiting impatiently for a male heir to come along.
Cromwell has his hands full with one thing and another, including the deposed queen Katherine, that Spanish papist, who is causing problems internationally. Cromwell is shown in various lights; there's the man who creates years of peace in Ireland by killing the right people, there's Cromwell trying to pass a new poor law in the Commons to create public works programs building roads, bridges, forts, there's Cromwell installing a woman from a country inn in one of his houses and apparently having her husband killed. And of course the five men who die for committing treason by having sex with the queen happen to have been involved in a mocking insult to his beloved Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell's patron.
Stephen Gardiner, an enemy of Cromwell's from old, turns up tangentially, but with a memorable description. Cromwell says
Stephen Gardner! Coming in as he's going out, striding towards the king's chamber, a folio under one arm, the other flailing the air. Gardner, Bishop of Winchester: blowing up like a thunderstorm, when for once we have a fine day. When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint-stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches. The woollen Bible figures in the king's tapestries lift their hands to cover their ears.
The trial and beheading of Anne and her friends in May 1536 occurred an amazingly short time after she miscarried, a few months. Cromwell was quite efficient at investigating, interrogation, arranging witnesses, and carrying out the prosecution. Cromwell says
…out of the corner of his eye he sees the Attorney General stifle a yawn, and he thinks, I have done what I thought I could never achieve, I have taken adultery, incest, conspiracy and treason, and I have made them routine. We do not need any false excitement. After all, it is a law court, not the Roman circus.
Maybe not a circus but a pretty speedy business. And 10 days later the king married Jane Seymour.
In her author's note Mantel says
This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.
Even without any serious research on Cromwell when I read Wolf Hall, I found this description by the scholar Richard Marius in his book Thomas More:
Even more dangerous and comprehensible to them [the English bishops] was the clever bureaucratic inventiveness of Thomas Cromwell and his band of resolute, impatient administrative innovators rapidly rooting out the worn old traditions of inefficient royal governance and replacing them with the steely and impersonal power of the modern state.
This is a contrast to the film portrayals of the devious evil Cromwell compared to the pious Thomas More and gives credence to Mantel's take on him.
Though Tony's (of Tony's Book World) reference to "weighty tomes about the kings and queens of England" in his entry on Salley Vickers fits, I had moments when I thought Mantel must have contemporary political life in mind, particularly when she has Thomas note
But chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.
I think she has done it again!