After enjoying Wolf Hall so much back in January / February, it was never going to be very long before I dived into the second instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell: Bring Up the Bodies.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is another dense and fairly lengthy novel, but, like Wolf Hall, it is also another very compelling one. In fact, like Wolf Hall before it, this novel also won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published. A pretty impressive feat by Hilary Mantel.

Much of Wolf Hall revolved around King Henry VIII desiring, scheming, and eventually achieving his aim of divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. A few years have since passed, and Anne has failed to bear Henry a son and heir, and their relationship is increasingly rocky. So, despite the fact that Henry had to overcome huge obstacles and even break with the Catholic church in order to marry Anne Boleyn, it seems that he has soon tired of her, and his eyes are beginning to wander.

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

At the start of this sequel, we find Thomas Cromwell and the King staying with the Seymour family at their family home, Wolf Hall. During this visit, King Henry spends time with young Jane Seymour and begins to fall in love with her. In fact, this fierce and revered king, seems rather like more like an infatuated school boy at times. He dotes, he composes love poetry, and he pines for his love when she is not around.

Henry is middle ages at this point, and still without a son. As he needs a legitimate heir, this obviously means marriage, and this, of course, puts him in rather a tricky position. Or, at least, it puts Thomas Cromwell in rather a tricky position, as it is he who is tasked with somehow helping to bring about this feat.

Thomas Cromwell, who is now Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council, is still the central character here, yet much of the book’s plot focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. She who so totally captivated the king just a few short years ago has now fallen out of favour. She who thought she could control anything and anyone is finally made to see that she too is a subject of her sovereign, and is subject to his changing desires.

Those who are made can be unmade.

At first, Cromwell hopes there might be some way to dissolve the marriage, and to send Anne off somewhere quietly, but all such plans are blocked by Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford.

Soon after this, Cromwell begins to hear rumours of Anne’s unfaithfulness to Henry. There are whispered comments made here and there, linking her to illicit liaisons with some of the gentlemen at court. Now, Cromwell well knows that these might just be idle talk, but it just so happens that some of the gentlemen mentioned are the very same men who helped to bring about the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s former master, mentor, and friend.

Whereas the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall was for the most part, kind, good, and fair, here we see a man who is keenly aware of his honoured yet fragile position, and who desires to have revenge on those who hurt Wolsey. Here is a man who is much more willing to turn situations to his advantage, even if it means that some men will be found guilty of crimes that they did not in fact commit.

He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

I found Bring Up the Bodies to be a darker read than was Wolf Hall.  The first novel has its share of sadness, injustice and of cruelty, for sure, but there is also genuine love, deep and meaningful friendship, and simple happiness as well. In this second instalment, there seemed far less innocence or joy. I also found the character of Thomas Cromwell to be more troubled, more Machiavellian than the one I so admired in Wolf Hall. However, he is still a great character, and the writing is still first class, so I will eagerly await the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy.

How many men can say, as I must, ‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away, and I have nothing.