‘Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.’
London, May 1536. Thomas Cromwell, now aged fifty, has just witnessed the beheading of Anne Boleyn. He moves on to breakfast, while her remains are treated unceremoniously. Thomas Cromwell will continue his rise, but it is not without cost:
‘He feels tired. Seven years for the king to get Anne. Three years to reign. Three weeks to bring her to trial. Three heartbeats to finish it. But still, they are his heartbeats as well as hers. The effort of them must be added to the rest.’
I have no difficulty imagining Thomas Cromwell: Ms Mantel brings him to life. And even though I know what is ahead, I am there with him negotiating the uncertainties of Henry VIII’s court. Henry is happy, briefly, with Jane. She dies, but at least has provided a male heir. And in the meantime, there are matters of religion to consider, the uncertain positions of Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, Henry’s desire to marry again.
Thomas Cromwell has risen far, and will rise further, before his death. He imagines a future for England, for himself. He knows that he has enemies and that he needs the king’s support in the face of powerful opposition by the great families. And, in between affairs of state, he thinks about himself and his family. About the events he has been part of, the shape of the future.
‘Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims.’
I remember the history, I know how (and when) Thomas Cromwell’s story will end. But even so, I am swept up in the final chapters, thinking as Cromwell does:
‘Surely death will give me notice. We have met before. He should not be churlish like a stranger.’
What can I say about this novel? Yes, it is a fitting conclusion to Ms Mantel’s trilogy. I am drawn into the life and times of Thomas Cromwell: I wonder about choices and outcomes, about possibilities. And while I wonder, Ms Mantel’s writing keeps me focussed on Thomas Cromwell’s present. The journey has ended. I finished the book, wondering what Ms Mantel will turn to next.