Hilary Mantel

Wonderful phrasemaking from The Mirror and the Light, of politics under a tyrant:

Chapuys says cheerfully, ‘Certainly you are a sectary of some sort. Perhaps one of those who oppose the baptism of infants?’ He chews a little, his eyes on Chapuys. This is the rumour young Surrey has spread, and other ill-wishers; it is the way to ruin him with Henry, and the ambassador knows it. ‘Christophe,’ he calls,

‘where’s that capon?’

People are always prompting you, you notice, to forgive and forget. They are always urging you, do as your father did, boy: be what your father was. Young men claim they want change, they want freedom, but the truth is, freedom just confuses them and change makes them quake. Set them on the open road with a purse and a fair wind, and before they’ve gone a mile they are crying for a master: they must be indentured, they must be in bond, they must have someone to obey. He would like to be the exception. He has travelled a mile and more. But perhaps he isn’t that different from the mass of men.

‘Thomas More wrote his epitaph in his lifetime,’ he tells her. ‘He was that sort of man.’ Words, words, just words. ‘He wanted it engraved in stone: Terrible to heretics. He was proud of what he did. He thought if you let the people read God’s word for themselves, Christendom would fall apart. There would be no more government, no more justice.’

Miracles do not last. The crippled man walks, but only twice around the churchyard before he collapses in a flailing of limbs. The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn’t recognise himself at all.

Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit.

‘Let’s have peace,’ he says: ‘Peace is cheap.’

I failed with you,’ Hans says curtly. ‘You should have been painted by some other master, a dead one, for God He knows, you looked dead. You know Antonello, that fellow from Messina? He would have dragged some expression out of you.’

No, none of us can stand anything. Scrape our skin, and beneath it there is an infant, howling.

Try and make her happy, he tells Gregory, happier than an old earl ever could: then she never regrets it, never looks back and says, I could have been the Countess of Oxford.

By midsummer the Pilgrims are all dead: hanged or beheaded, along with those who assisted them, excused them, or fed them with money and hope. Bigod, Lord Darcy, and Captain Cobbler himself, the great rebel of Louth; the Abbot of Jervaux, the one-time Abbot of Fountains: some executed at Tyburn, some at the Tower, some sent to be killed in York or Hull. They say old Darcy spent his last days cursing Thomas Cromwell, when he should have been telling his beads. The recalcitrant monks of the London Charterhouse are chained up at Newgate, and in less than a week the plague takes five of them, leaves others dying: dispatched, it seems, by the hand of God.

Tom Thumb is caught in a mousetrap. He is baked in a pudding. He is swallowed by what beast you please, not to emerge till it shits.

Instead, we of noble blood must stand by and watch knaves filching manors from those who have owned them time out of mind, and trusting to mingle their seed with the finest blood this land affords. What does the king do, keeping about him such a set of common thieves and dip-pockets? Thrusting out of his council gentlemen of high birth –’

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers. But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

Certain priests about the king make a note of his words, with time and date: the king says out of his own mouth, though pilgrimages are vain, anointing is a sacrament. Last year the seven sacraments were reduced to three, and now we are back to seven; it seems the four that were lost have been found again. The bishops have said so in their book. Or have they? It is difficult to know. It is always going back to the printer, for corrections and additions.

‘Katherine’s confessor, when she was queen. He praises all popish ceremonies, and preaches clean contrary to scripture. He has abused the king’s patience these five years and more. Now I fear he must burn. I will bring him to Paul’s Cross. Hugh Latimer begs to preach to him. He believes he can bring the sinner to Christ. And at a hopeful sign, we will unloose his bonds.’ Cranmer’s tone is dry, precise; but his hands shake. ‘I hope he will abjure. He is a man near seventy.’

It is against his nature to think that no bargain can be struck. Everybody wants something, if only for the pain to stop.

Father and son ride out together in the evening, the sun a perfect crimson orb above the line of the downs. The sky has become a mirror, against which the sun moves: light without shadow, like the light at the beginning of the world. Gregory’s chatter stills; the creak of harness, the breathing of the horses, seems to muffle itself, so they move in silence, outlined against silver, tall against the sky; and as the upland fades into a pillowy distance, he feels himself riding into nowhere, a blank, where only memory stirs. He thinks of those who he has known who have died by fire, as if they have fallen into the sun. Little Bilney; the sour and obstinate Tyndale; the young and tender John Frith.

‘Give it here,’ he says. A cap of silver holds together the crazed fragments of bone. The lips of thousands have grazed this relic; but he is a whore’s client with no time for kissing. He holds Becket up, eye to hollow eye; he looks into his vacancy. He turns the skull up, to see where it was chopped from the backbone. There is no record that the four knights cut off Becket’s head. His admirers did that, later.

What caterpillars these men be, who digest all before them, who fatten on the king’s favour, who bite jagged holes in the commonwealth. They cocoon in dusty corners; one day they will split their casing and emerge in gaudy, flaunting their Roman vestments.

‘You would take arms against Henry?’ She seems entertained, more than shocked. ‘I did not say that.’ She looks down at her hands, wearing Wyatt’s ring. ‘Oh, I think you did.’

Recording baptisms, the people say, will enable the king to tax us in our infancy. Recording weddings will allow him to impose a levy on every bride and groom. Given notice of funerals, Cromwell’s commissioners will attend to pluck the pennies off the corpse’s lids. Cromwell is laying his plans, they say, to steal our firewood, our chickens and our spoons. He means to impound our millstone, tax cauldrons and stewpots, weight the beam, tamper with the baker’s scales, and fix liquid measures in his favour. The man is like a weasel, who eats his own weight every day. You do not see him coming, he makes himself so small he can pass through a wedding ring. His eyes are open all night. He dances to baffle his prey then sucks out their brains. His lair is in the dens of the vanquished and he lines it with their fur.

Our law of treason is capacious. It encompasses words and bad intentions. We let More bring himself down that way, we let the Boleyns do it. Is a man a victim, who walks onto a knife?

The men around our king live by what they call honour: skill in arms, prowess on the battlefield. Their appetite is not slaked by the cutting up of northern rebels, or the attrition of border feuding. Norfolk calls war business. ‘If we have business with the French,’ he says,

The king’s temper is no mystery. The astrologers say it is his moon in Aries that makes him explosive, confrontational – but really what matters is the state of his leg. Some days it hurts more, some days less, but there are no days it does not hurt at all. As the king’s doctors remark, the ailments of great men have too little credit, when their lives are passed in view.

‘Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense.’

By the way, the Howards sent a little lass called Katherine, to see if we would have her among the new queen’s maids. Succulent and plump, and I doubt she has passed her fifteenth year.’

Look how he steamed and glared, that day I took a holiday. Look how he pawed the ground and rolled his eyes. This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.

They know nothing of the tangle of Putney feuds, the network of obligations to fight and win that has ensnared you since you could walk: sure as any duke, you have honour, honour must be served.

He thinks, I wish the court would call Anna by that name, not use Anne. But women are to be named and renamed, it is their nature, and they have no country of their own; they go where their husbands take them, where their father and brothers send them.

The child’s flower face turns on its stem, her lips emit a stream of chatter. Norfolk’s face wears an expression of strained tolerance – he is alert in case the king comes in. The girl forgets her uncle, drops his arm and stares around. Her glance slips absently over the men, but rakes the women head to toe. Clearly she has never seen so many great ladies before; she is studying how they stand, how they move. ‘Sizing up her rivals,’ he says; she has no guile.

The king is pleased with Duke Philip. He brings him into his chambers at Whitehall, to show him the Henry on the wall. If the king sees any gap between the monarch that Hans painted and the man who exhibits him, it does not trouble him.

Henry says, ‘You know, I think you have never forgiven me. For parting with Wolsey.’ Parting with him? Christ in Heaven. ‘I think you blame me for his death.’

‘You offended, and I forgave. A ruler must do it. I am greatly altered these ten years. You, not so much. You do not surprise me as once you did. I do not think you will surprise me again, considering all that you have said and done – some of it miraculous, Tom, I will not deny. You work beyond the capacities of ten ordinary men. But still I miss the Cardinal of York.’ When he goes out he can feel the pulse in his neck jumping.

‘The king bowed low.’ Gregory takes a gulp of his wine. ‘And addressed her, but she did not turn. I think she took him for – I do not know what – some Jolly Jankin dressed up for the festival. And so he stood, his hat in his hand – then her people swarmed in, and someone called out, “Madam,” and a phrase to alert her …’ Gregory falters. ‘And then she turned. And she knew who he was. And as Christ is my Saviour, Father, the look in her eye! I will never forget it.’ Gregory sits down, as if at the end of his strength. ‘Nor will the king.’

‘And she is beautiful?’ ‘Not sideways. She has a long nose. But you know he had no time to draw her from all angles. She is pleasant-looking. She is a little marked with smallpox, but I only saw that when the sun chanced to come out. The king cannot have seen it, he had turned his back.’

‘No, you have not seen her,’ the king says. ‘You have been at the mercy of reports, as have I, so you cannot be blamed. But when I encountered her yesterday, I tell you, I had much ado to master myself. A great outlandish bonnet with wings sticking out either side of her head – and with her height, and stiff as she is – I thought to myself, she looks like the Cornhill Maypole. I believe she had painted her mouth, which if true is a filthy thing.’

‘Blame himself?’ Tunstall says. ‘The king? When has that happened? You would think Cromwell had never met him.’

He ushers Riche out as Wriothesley comes in. Clearly he has been eavesdropping on Riche, because his face is flushed. He says, ‘That man has no feeling at all. He is a tissue of ambition.’

Charles leans forward. How dare your master use that word, ungrateful? How can a charge of ingratitude be levelled against an Emperor, by the envoy of some poor little island full of heretics and sheep? An inferior person, a king, cannot expect gratitude. The Holy Roman Emperor is set above mere kings. Their natural position is at his feet. Wyatt draws back. ‘All is said, sir.’ In seeking to insult Henry, the Emperor has insulted all princes, his French ally included.

He sees Wriothesley shrink, like a dog under the whip. He is whimpering beneath his burden of knowledge, as all the king’s creatures do.

He thinks, they have bruised me, but it will not hurt until tomorrow. The water rocks beneath them, cerulean blue. The Tower is in sight. The flint sparkles like sunlight on the sea.

For the king’s councillors were prepared for my arrest, if I was not. How did they work it? What backhand whispers, what lifts of the eyebrow, what nods, winks? And what conferences with the king, their informants greasing in as I went out? No wonder Henry turned his back on me when last we spoke.

It is not only kings who cannot be grateful. The fortunes he has made, the patronage he has dispensed: these count against him now, because favours that cannot be repaid eat away at the soul. Men scorn to live under an obligation. They would rather be perjurers, and sell their friends.

But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.

2 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel

    • I now know the 1530s more than any other period of English history, certainly before the 20th century. It’s a portrait of a tyrant whose utter selfishness, that “L’Etat, c’est moi”, “I alone can fix it” self-regard, results in damage and suffering.


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