Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in Hillary Mantel’s trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s grey eminence. The sequel to Mantel’s Booker-winning novel Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies follows Cromwell’s continuing rags-to-riches progress into the year of Anne Boleyn’s execution and Henry’s marriage to his third wife, Jane Seymour (no, I don’t think this counts as a spoiler).
For fans of A Man for All Seasons, much of the joy in reading Wolf Hall was seeing that story through the looking glass. The movie’s serious, principled Sir Thomas More becomes a sanctimonious fanatic who tortures his religious opponents, while Cromwell transforms from a corpulent and corrupt courtier into a man of low birth constantly fighting to stay one step ahead of disaster at the hands of those who take power for granted.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell has risen far enough that we are denied the joys of watching the underdog fight. Disaster is no longer imminent and success carries penalties of its own. As Cromwell moves from being a mere “fixer” for the king to become his chief minister, he finds himself faced with more existential questions about the conflict between Henry’s personal desires and the needs of his kingdom. The kind of mud we forgave in Wolf Hall starts to stick, and drags Cromwell down to where the rest of the characters have always played.
Historians talk about a Tudor revolution in government where the personal relationship between the king and his courtiers began to be replaced by an embryonic bureaucracy, and Mantel’s Cromwell is at the center of this. He has risen so high that his fall seems inevitable, and by the end of Bring Up the Bodies it’s just a matter of when in the third book the axe will fall, not if it will (the answer: 28 July 1540, according to Wikipedia).
Mantel lets Cromwell escape the worst conflict between serving the king’s personal body and his stately one with her treatment of Boleyn’s fall from grace—in Bring Up the Bodies she is clearly guilty of at least romantic improprieties if not of the incest and and adultery, rather than the charges being completely fabricated. Still, by the end of the book we start to sense that a line has been crossed that was not in Wolf Hall. Cromwell the good is replaced by Cromwell the realpolitiker. For the former, the latter’s fall many even be a mercy.