April 30, 2015

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Source: Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

Robert Bolt moved those words to the trial scene, with no reaction at all from Cromwell. Hilary Mantel keeps the original interview setting, but has Cromwell making a bitter riposte:

You do nobody harm?  What about Bainham? [I.e. James Bainham, a Lutheran More had interrogated three years before.] … His body was so broken that they had to carry him in a chair when they took him to Smithfield to be burned alive.  And you say, Thomas More, that you do no harm?

Mantel’s portrayal of Henry is more conventional. He is strong-willed but sometimes capricious; a good judge of men, less so of women. She recycles some of the old slurs on his sexual prowess. There has been a common suspicion that Henry was sexually shy, and in his later years”€”he only lived to 55″€”impotent.

We can”€™t know the truth about this. Henry bedded many women and fathered several children. Modern historians, weighing the circumstantial evidence, seem to agree that he was sexually normal. King of England is a heck of a thing to live up to, though. It’s easy to imagine how an episode of performance anxiety, carelessly (or maliciously) remarked on by a playmate and broadcast by the twittering bevies of court women, might linger in the popular mind for a few centuries.

Some Amazon reviewers have found Mantel’s style indigestible, and the cast of characters hard to keep track of. The author actually addresses the second point with lists of dramatis personae at the front of both books; the first is a matter of taste. I personally found her easy reading, with some memorable images:

Sir Nicholas Carew comes to see him.  The very fibres of his beard are bristling with conspiracy.

The TV dramatization is pretty good, but I think strictly for people who have read the books. I don”€™t see how you could follow it otherwise. (My wife, who hasn”€™t, couldn”€™t.)


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