Machiavellian reformer

British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction.  The first time was for Wolf Hall.  Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII.   And they are both spellbinding.

Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution.  Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically.  Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality.  Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More.  But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.

Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable.  And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating.  King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and  hatred of the Lutheran Reformation.  (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)

Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books.  You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall.  Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title).  She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Consigliore? Whazzat?

  • Pete

    Consigliore? Whazzat?

  • Tressa

    Well. I had Wolf Hall in my library bag for three weeks but never was able to get to it. After this review I need to try again. It sounds like my type of book.

  • Tressa

    Well. I had Wolf Hall in my library bag for three weeks but never was able to get to it. After this review I need to try again. It sounds like my type of book.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    It’s misspelled, that what it is. I’ll fix that. But for those of you who didn’t see “Godfather,” here’s this:

    con·si·glie·re (kns-lyr)
    n. pl. con·si·glie·ri (-r)
    An adviser or counselor, especially to a capo or leader of an organized crime syndicate.

    In using that term, I’m jabbing Henry VIII.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    It’s misspelled, that what it is. I’ll fix that. But for those of you who didn’t see “Godfather,” here’s this:

    con·si·glie·re (kns-lyr)
    n. pl. con·si·glie·ri (-r)
    An adviser or counselor, especially to a capo or leader of an organized crime syndicate.

    In using that term, I’m jabbing Henry VIII.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Tressa, I think it is. A couple of tips: The first chapter or so may be a little slow going, but don’t give up. Soon you will become immersed in the thing and will have difficulty putting it down. Also, I was at first distracted by the practice favored by contemporary novelists of writing in the present tense. (“He goes into the room. . . .He sees the Queen draw near. . . .”) After awhile I got used to it and it was fine.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Tressa, I think it is. A couple of tips: The first chapter or so may be a little slow going, but don’t give up. Soon you will become immersed in the thing and will have difficulty putting it down. Also, I was at first distracted by the practice favored by contemporary novelists of writing in the present tense. (“He goes into the room. . . .He sees the Queen draw near. . . .”) After awhile I got used to it and it was fine.

  • Pete

    Thanx

  • Pete

    Thanx

  • Richard

    Read both of her books–they are terrific, Dr. Veith is correct. I re-read a criticism of her in “Touchstone,” though that her negative portrayal of Thomas More was a bit off historically. More always does ignite a debate on his virtues and drawbacks.

    Dr. Veith–when do we get your take on the book on Cranach by Steven Ozment, “The Serpent and the Lamb”? I thought it was quite good.

  • Richard

    Read both of her books–they are terrific, Dr. Veith is correct. I re-read a criticism of her in “Touchstone,” though that her negative portrayal of Thomas More was a bit off historically. More always does ignite a debate on his virtues and drawbacks.

    Dr. Veith–when do we get your take on the book on Cranach by Steven Ozment, “The Serpent and the Lamb”? I thought it was quite good.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    King Henry the VIII, it was not for nothing that the pope gave him the title “Defender of The Faith.”

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    King Henry the VIII, it was not for nothing that the pope gave him the title “Defender of The Faith.”

  • Richard

    Yeah, Henry wasn’t the most admirable guy around, and Luther justifiably couldn’t stand him. Some historians believe that Thomas More wrote most of his anti-Lutheran writings.

  • Richard

    Yeah, Henry wasn’t the most admirable guy around, and Luther justifiably couldn’t stand him. Some historians believe that Thomas More wrote most of his anti-Lutheran writings.

  • http://www.redhatrob.com Rob Shearer

    More, for all his admirable qualities, was a bitter opponent of Tyndale and his English translation of the Bible.

    minor point of clarification. It wasn’t exactly Henry VIII who executed Tyndale. Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp and executed near Brussels by the government of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII did nothing to stop it, of course – but is not directly responsible.

  • http://www.redhatrob.com Rob Shearer

    More, for all his admirable qualities, was a bitter opponent of Tyndale and his English translation of the Bible.

    minor point of clarification. It wasn’t exactly Henry VIII who executed Tyndale. Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp and executed near Brussels by the government of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII did nothing to stop it, of course – but is not directly responsible.

  • Joanne

    I thought that Tyndale had been caught and burned in the Spanish Netherlands, then part of Charles V huge empire. In fact, I believe that he inherited it from his mother, Juana de Loca, and spent his childhood there. He could not understand Luther’s German because he only knew the very low German of Flemish. The Spanish Armada that in 1588 attacked Elizabeth I, assembled at Antwerpen and attacked England from the Spanish Netherlands (today is mostly Belgium).

    I have said elsewhere that every morning when he woke up, that Cranmer had to wonder which Henry he would have to deal with that day. To say that King Henry was mercurial is to say that we live and breath. It was obvious to all. Cranmer was joined at the hip with Cromwell, wasn’t he; does our authoress keep Cranmer in the picture as well?

    And, Dr. Veith, I too love to read popular histories, though not historical novels. They always disappoint the historian in me somewhere. And, like you I’ve often even given a friend an historically inspired book, raving about it, only to have the friend return it a couple weeks later, claiming they just couldn’t get into it, a book I had read in one sitting, and even watched the sun come up on me near the end.

    De gustibus non est disputandum.

  • Joanne

    I thought that Tyndale had been caught and burned in the Spanish Netherlands, then part of Charles V huge empire. In fact, I believe that he inherited it from his mother, Juana de Loca, and spent his childhood there. He could not understand Luther’s German because he only knew the very low German of Flemish. The Spanish Armada that in 1588 attacked Elizabeth I, assembled at Antwerpen and attacked England from the Spanish Netherlands (today is mostly Belgium).

    I have said elsewhere that every morning when he woke up, that Cranmer had to wonder which Henry he would have to deal with that day. To say that King Henry was mercurial is to say that we live and breath. It was obvious to all. Cranmer was joined at the hip with Cromwell, wasn’t he; does our authoress keep Cranmer in the picture as well?

    And, Dr. Veith, I too love to read popular histories, though not historical novels. They always disappoint the historian in me somewhere. And, like you I’ve often even given a friend an historically inspired book, raving about it, only to have the friend return it a couple weeks later, claiming they just couldn’t get into it, a book I had read in one sitting, and even watched the sun come up on me near the end.

    De gustibus non est disputandum.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Joanne, Tyndale fled England, but Henry VIII requested Charles V to arrest him in Antwerp, where he was burned.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Joanne, Tyndale fled England, but Henry VIII requested Charles V to arrest him in Antwerp, where he was burned.

  • Joanne

    Charles would burn Henry’s Bible translators/publishers, but would not allow the popes to give Henry an annulment. Oh what a tangled web we weave. I am currently being called upon as a witness in an annulment procedure to testify that the now married couple did not know each other before the previous divorce, which I can do.

    When another of our friends asked what was happening, I said that my friend was bastardizing her two children by her first husband. I know that the Pope as God on Earth can also work the miracle of ligitimization of the children of a marriage that officially never existed. Only God on Earth, and this is simply what Henry wanted, and the Vicar of God does it all the time for anybody for almost any reason.

    It was grossly unfair to Henry (VIII), that this simple matter did not automatically happen because his disprised 1st wife was better at using her considerable politial connections than Henry was. Charles, Mary’s loving nephew, sacked Rome in ca. 1525 and put the popes in their place (politically), from this point forward. If we believed in fate, we could see right away that Henry was in the tragic hero seat of this tale.

  • Joanne

    Charles would burn Henry’s Bible translators/publishers, but would not allow the popes to give Henry an annulment. Oh what a tangled web we weave. I am currently being called upon as a witness in an annulment procedure to testify that the now married couple did not know each other before the previous divorce, which I can do.

    When another of our friends asked what was happening, I said that my friend was bastardizing her two children by her first husband. I know that the Pope as God on Earth can also work the miracle of ligitimization of the children of a marriage that officially never existed. Only God on Earth, and this is simply what Henry wanted, and the Vicar of God does it all the time for anybody for almost any reason.

    It was grossly unfair to Henry (VIII), that this simple matter did not automatically happen because his disprised 1st wife was better at using her considerable politial connections than Henry was. Charles, Mary’s loving nephew, sacked Rome in ca. 1525 and put the popes in their place (politically), from this point forward. If we believed in fate, we could see right away that Henry was in the tragic hero seat of this tale.

  • Joanne

    PS. There are some excellent popular histories out there on the two sisters of Henry VIII. The older became the Queen of Scotland which was what lead to the United Kingdom later under James IV/I. The other sister was very beautiful and already deeply in love with another man, a very unsuitable English man. She was instead, for obvious political reasons, married to the elderly King of France.

    She was dispised and friendless in France and the elderly King, invigorated by her surpassing beauty acted the young man and probably had a heart attack in their marriage bed. But this younger sister had made a deal with her tyrannical brother, that when the KofF died, she could return to England to live happily ever after with the love of her life, which is exactly what happened. Some joy in Henryland. (Charles V had been considered as her second husband, but she insisted that the deal be kept, or she would wreck the Imperial marriage.)

    Another book chronicles the chess game that Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I played for 30 years. Elizabeth had her physically under her thumb and could have squashed Mary of Scots at any time, but as she so often did, she muddled through, until it just had to happen that Mary’s head fell into the exicutioners basket.

    Mary never wavered in her claim to be the legitimate Queen of both Scots and England. As long as Mary lived, Elizabeth’s throne was made of jello. We see in our minds the greatest Monarch that England ever had, but every day she had to keep the jello from melting.

    With all these people, it was always survival, and if you lived, how much of your sovereignty could you maintain contorl of. The defeat of the Schmlkalden League, had great consequences not just becuse Elector Johan fought against the Emperor, but most because he was captured and kept in prison until he agreed to the Emperor’s political terms. He would never agree to his religious terms.

    And those slippery Albertines (Johann’s cousins) sided with the Emperor and got what they had long coveted, the titles, the palaces, and the lands along the Elbe of Johann. Then a few year later when the Emperor was in an awkward position, Maurice the slippery Albertine attacked the Emperor and won, getting concessions for the survival of the Evangelical faith.

    It really is one game of living chess after another, and the unlikely now becomes the very probably tomorrow. History as it was is better than any fiction plot.

  • Joanne

    PS. There are some excellent popular histories out there on the two sisters of Henry VIII. The older became the Queen of Scotland which was what lead to the United Kingdom later under James IV/I. The other sister was very beautiful and already deeply in love with another man, a very unsuitable English man. She was instead, for obvious political reasons, married to the elderly King of France.

    She was dispised and friendless in France and the elderly King, invigorated by her surpassing beauty acted the young man and probably had a heart attack in their marriage bed. But this younger sister had made a deal with her tyrannical brother, that when the KofF died, she could return to England to live happily ever after with the love of her life, which is exactly what happened. Some joy in Henryland. (Charles V had been considered as her second husband, but she insisted that the deal be kept, or she would wreck the Imperial marriage.)

    Another book chronicles the chess game that Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I played for 30 years. Elizabeth had her physically under her thumb and could have squashed Mary of Scots at any time, but as she so often did, she muddled through, until it just had to happen that Mary’s head fell into the exicutioners basket.

    Mary never wavered in her claim to be the legitimate Queen of both Scots and England. As long as Mary lived, Elizabeth’s throne was made of jello. We see in our minds the greatest Monarch that England ever had, but every day she had to keep the jello from melting.

    With all these people, it was always survival, and if you lived, how much of your sovereignty could you maintain contorl of. The defeat of the Schmlkalden League, had great consequences not just becuse Elector Johan fought against the Emperor, but most because he was captured and kept in prison until he agreed to the Emperor’s political terms. He would never agree to his religious terms.

    And those slippery Albertines (Johann’s cousins) sided with the Emperor and got what they had long coveted, the titles, the palaces, and the lands along the Elbe of Johann. Then a few year later when the Emperor was in an awkward position, Maurice the slippery Albertine attacked the Emperor and won, getting concessions for the survival of the Evangelical faith.

    It really is one game of living chess after another, and the unlikely now becomes the very probably tomorrow. History as it was is better than any fiction plot.

  • Joanne

    A book on the women of the Reformation could be interesting. Sybilla, slammed the gates of Wittenberg shut against the Emperor when he arrived with his victorious troups from Torgau, to lay claim to Wittenberg as well. But, as much as she railed against him, she could not do much, she was already checkmated, the Emperor already held her husband in chains. But Sybilla made the defiant gesture and annoyed the Emperor for several days, marching up and down the battlements, poor as they were at Wittenberg, telling the Emperor exactly what she thought of him. I’d love to have seen it. I believe the Emperor admired her courage, even as she ultimatly ordered the gates opened, and prepared for the move to Jena castle in Thuringia. It might have been her courage based on her Evangelical faith, that made Charles the Emperor protect Luther’s grave from his Spanish officers. He had some reason, and “I only make war on the living,” is a convenient thing to say, when it was always the practice to dig up an excommuncated heretics bones and burn them.

  • Joanne

    A book on the women of the Reformation could be interesting. Sybilla, slammed the gates of Wittenberg shut against the Emperor when he arrived with his victorious troups from Torgau, to lay claim to Wittenberg as well. But, as much as she railed against him, she could not do much, she was already checkmated, the Emperor already held her husband in chains. But Sybilla made the defiant gesture and annoyed the Emperor for several days, marching up and down the battlements, poor as they were at Wittenberg, telling the Emperor exactly what she thought of him. I’d love to have seen it. I believe the Emperor admired her courage, even as she ultimatly ordered the gates opened, and prepared for the move to Jena castle in Thuringia. It might have been her courage based on her Evangelical faith, that made Charles the Emperor protect Luther’s grave from his Spanish officers. He had some reason, and “I only make war on the living,” is a convenient thing to say, when it was always the practice to dig up an excommuncated heretics bones and burn them.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Richard, I’ll be writing on Ozmen’s book on Cranach before too long.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Richard, I’ll be writing on Ozmen’s book on Cranach before too long.

  • Joanne

    See Joanne @12,

    The annulment questionaire arrived in my mail on Saturday. It was a cover letter and 6 pages of questions. The cover letter was at pains to explain that this is a procedure of the church and will not affect the legitimacy of the children.

    “This is a purely religious process of the Catholic Church and has no affects in civil law.”

    Satan means this for evil, but God means it for good. Only God could turn a crucifixion into the salvation of the whole world. Perspective is helpful.
    Well, it happens that I’ve always been fond of my friend’s children. What I really want to know is, what affect this has on God? Actually, I don’t think the pretenses of the Roman Church will affect the children in heaven or on earth, all other things being equal.

    I met this family through attending a Lutheran Church, but I don’t know if the children still have their faith. It is my prayer that this “purely religious process” does not negatively affect their faith.

  • Joanne

    See Joanne @12,

    The annulment questionaire arrived in my mail on Saturday. It was a cover letter and 6 pages of questions. The cover letter was at pains to explain that this is a procedure of the church and will not affect the legitimacy of the children.

    “This is a purely religious process of the Catholic Church and has no affects in civil law.”

    Satan means this for evil, but God means it for good. Only God could turn a crucifixion into the salvation of the whole world. Perspective is helpful.
    Well, it happens that I’ve always been fond of my friend’s children. What I really want to know is, what affect this has on God? Actually, I don’t think the pretenses of the Roman Church will affect the children in heaven or on earth, all other things being equal.

    I met this family through attending a Lutheran Church, but I don’t know if the children still have their faith. It is my prayer that this “purely religious process” does not negatively affect their faith.

  • Karl

    You are out of your mind to say that henry was a “tragic hero”.

    The man was a monster who murdered thousands.

    You have endless repenting to do dear. grow up to start with.

  • Karl

    You are out of your mind to say that henry was a “tragic hero”.

    The man was a monster who murdered thousands.

    You have endless repenting to do dear. grow up to start with.


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