Tag Archives: anne boleyn

Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *


Popish Protestants in Tudor England

10 May

Even before the king’s “Great Matter” took center stage, Henry VII had a number of extramarital affairs, with both Catherine and the court looking the other way.  In the case of Anne Boleyn, however, Henry did not simply desire a new mistress: to make the succession secure he needed a son, which meant a young queen strong enough to bear children.  To achieve this goal, Henry needed a divorce, irrespective of his lust or Anne’s royal aspirations.

So though in his heart a true son of the Church, King Henry VIII’s personal attachment to Catholicism could not override his political motives: to support Protestant reform efforts in a pragmatic attempt preserve the stability of the realm after his death with a male heir.

Ironically, however, this very attempt to secure a legitimate male successor through a nominal change in theology opened the door to true radicals whose espousal of Protestant doctrine would reflect not just political expediency, but social reform that would serve to destabilize the social order Henry VIII valued.

But contradictions in scripture provided support for both Henry and Catherine—while a passage in Deuteronomy promoted the practice of levirate marriage, a man taking his brother’s widow as his own wife, two passages in Leviticus denounced it.  Most compelling to Henry, Leviticus 20:21 stated that if a man marries his brother’s widow, “he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness” and, as a result, “they shall be childless.”

Because of these contradictions, a special papal dispensation had been required for Henry and Catherine to marry in the first place, as she had been the wife of Henry’s late older brother Arthur.

This very dispensation demonstrates the Vatican’s willingness to consider dynastic and political necessities in its interpretation of scripture, and so Henry’s desire for an annulment would not have been unreasonable—if he had not based his argument in the idea that the Pope had not had the right to issue the dispensation to begin with.

The king’s insistence on this argument Henry’s rejection of the concept dual loyalty to both a temporal power (the king) and a spiritual power (the Pope)—a break reflected in the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Supremacy in 1533 and 1534

Building on the precedent of the 14th century Statutes of Praemunire, which addressed the issue of “numerous persons being taken out of the kingdom to response in cases of which the cognizance pertains to the court of our lord the king,” the Act in Restraint of Appeals established the king of England as the highest justice to which an Englishman (or woman, like Queen Catherine) could appeal.  Henry was accorded by “Almighty God with plenary, whole and entire power, preeminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction.”

The subsequent Act of Supremacy institutionalized what the Act in Restraint of Appeals had made true in practice: that “the King’s Majesty… is the supreme head of the Church of England.”

Yet even after this radical break from Rome, however, Henry VIII still saw himself as a devoted Catholic, the “defensor fidei” his renunciation of Martin Luther’s ideas had made him.  Henry demonstrated near-orthodoxy in most areas of religious doctrine, simply replacing the Pope with himself.

His adherence to Catholic doctrine is reflected in the 1539 Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions, also known as the “Six Articles.” While Protestants rejected all but two sacraments (communion and baptism), this document upeld all seven, along with transubstantiation, communion under both species for priests and not laypeople, the doctrine of purgatory, and the vows of chastity made by monks or nuns—even after the dissolution of their monasteries.

The document, in fact, parallels his defense of the sacraments in response to Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church—Henry’s “Assertion of the 7 Sacraments” was the treatise that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith.”

Though a seeming contradiction, both Henry’s rejection of the Pope and support of otherwise “popish” practices ramify from his central motivation: to preserve the stability of the realm by upholding the “Great Chain of Being,” best maintained by the rigid hierarchical structure and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

When the young Edward VI succeeded his father, however, his Council of Regents found that Protestant doctrine carried with it inherently destabilizing ideas.  The king could not simply be substituted for the Pope, because Protestants did not see the clergy as possessing special access to either truth or the path to salvation.

Catholic priests were the sole interpreters of a Latin Bible, but (like the Lollards before them) Protestants supported vernacular Bibles and preached a “priesthood of believers.

Catholics believed that one received God’s grace necessary to salvation through the sacraments, but Protestants rejected all but two sacraments and preached that one was saved through faith alone, or solefideanism, for which sacraments were not necessary.

Depicting this shift visually, the elevated altar of the priest is replaced with a simple table in the illustration of John Foxe’s book of Protestant martyrs, Acts and Monuments: the altar is labeled “The Common Table.”

These doctrinal positions undermined the authority of the religious hierarchy by emphasizing the essential spiritual equality of all believers, and were used as partial justification for Kett’s Rebellion in 1549.

Henry VIII’s disastrous economic policies of debasement of the currency and reckless spending on unsuccessful wars continued into Edward VI’s minority reign, leading to a century of high inflation and skyrocketing prices.  The 16th century, the Tudor century, marked a time of rapidly deteriorating living conditions—what a common laborer could get for his salary during this time dropped to pre-plague levels.

(The Black Plague took a tragic toll on human life in Europe, but for the survivors—life was good.  A radically reduced labor force meant that peasants could demand higher wages, lower rents—with landowners having no other choice but to cave.  Essentially, the Plague, not any royal fiat, killed serfdom.  By Henry’s time, however, these benefits had mostly eroded.)

These economic troubles led to social unrest in the mid 1500s and catalyzed Kett’s Rebellion, but were justified by an egalitarian Protestant doctrine similar to the rhetoric of John Ball, whose demagoguery used Lollard ideas of equality to preach “killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors,” and so on.

Edward VI’s deep Protestant piety had been shaped by the Regency council that educated him, and so when faced with this rebellion, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was a true radical who not only repealed Henry’s anti-Protestant legislation but went so far as to sympathize with the social application of Protestant religious doctrine.

Though he ultimately lost power for hesitating to suppress the uprising, Somerset illustrates how Henry VIII’s political pragmatism inadvertently undermined his own personal social conservatism.

Anne Boleyn’s Very Little Neck

9 Apr

(For the critics of historically inaccurate tv)

Re-watching The Tudors in preparation for the imminent final season, I’m increasingly impressed by Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn– especially at the end of season 2, when she alternates rapidly between very queenly dignity and borderline madness.  One of the best examples of this is a scene in 2.10, when the famous Executioner of Calais is delayed and Anne’s beheading is postponed:

I always thought the writing there was amazing–a very good, quite literal example of “gallows humor.”  And then, playing the Wikipedia Game, I come across poor Queen Anne’s page, and find this excerpt from Anthony Kingston’s (the Tower Constable) diary:

This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.’ I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.

I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and had been since two o’clock.

Which only goes to show– some history’s so good that even show biz can’t improve on it.