By Charles Matthews

Thursday, April 1, 2010

5. "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, pp. 54-77

Part II, II, "An Occult History of Britain," 1521-1529, through "Or, with any good effect, to the woman they say he loves."
So we go back a bit to bring things up to date. The chapter begins with a true occult history of Britain, about its founding by a Greek king's murderous 33 daughters who were exiled by him to the far-off island they called Albina, where they mated with demons and gave birth to giants that were overthrown by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, whose descendants ruled until the Romans came. And the Tudors were descended from Brutus through Constantine who was King Arthur's grandfather. And his descendant Prince Arthur was born in 1486, but died at 15, so his brother Henry (who would have been Archbishop of Canterbury if Arthur had lived) married his widow, Katherine of Aragon.

The true part is the troublesome part, especially after the appearance at court in 1521 of the 20-year-old daughter of Thomas Boleyn. Wolsey wanted her to marry into the Irish court, but she caught the eye of Harry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. Wolsey's plan is for Percy to marry Mary Talbot -- the Boleyns are comparative upstarts. Cromwell is in the shadows, taking notes, as Wolsey and Boleyn lock horns. Boleyn claims that Percy and Anne have already "pledged themselves before witnesses," and Wolsey orders him, "Marry the girl into Ireland before the Butlers hear any rumor that she's spoiled good. Not that I'd mention it. But the court does talk." And he adds, "notwithstanding your remarkable good fortune in marrying a Howard, the Boleyns were in trade once, were they not?" Boleyn stalks out, muttering "Butcher's boy" and, at Cromwell, "Butcher's dog."

But Cromwell knows something Wolsey doesn't, thanks to the gossip his wife has heard: "'The women judge from orders to the silk merchants that the king has a new--' He breaks off and says, 'My lord, what do you call a whore when she is a knight's daughter?'"  He means Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, "a kind little blonde, who is said to have been passed all around the French court before coming home to this one, scattering goodwill, her frowning little sister trotting always at her heels." He also heard that Henry had lost his virginity to Boleyn's wife, which surprises Wolsey. And they mention the king's son by "John Blount's daughter," known as Henry Fitzroy, a ten-year-old whom the king has made Duke of Somerset and Duke of Richmond.

As Cromwell leaves Wolsey, "The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for 'Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.' He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on."

We jump ahead to 1529 and to Cromwell and Cavendish in conversation at the cardinal sleeps. They recall how when she was parted from Harry Percy, who has married Mary Talbot, Anne Boleyn "said that if she could work my lord cardinal any displeasure, she would do it." And we review the rise of Anne and the efforts of Henry and Katherine to conceive that resulted only in a series of miscarriages and infant deaths with the exception of their "small but vigorous" daughter, Mary, born in 1516. The queen is now 42. "Under her gowns she wears the habit of a Franciscan nun. Try always, Wolsey says, to find out what people wear under their clothes." Cromwell compares Mary to his own daughter, Anne, who is two or three years younger than the princess: "Anne Cromwell is a tough little girl.... Mary Tudor is a pale, clever doll with fox-colored hair, who speaks with more gravity than the average bishop."

Wolsey has also advised Cromwell about serving the king: "If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure-loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom."

The efforts to get Pope Clement to annul the marriage of Henry and Katherine was complicated by the pope's capture during the sack of Rome. Thomas More claims that the imperial troops in charge of the pope were "roasting live babies on spits," which elicits Cromwell's derision: "Listen, soldiers don't do that. They're too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money." It's a reaction that speaks of the difference between More, the protomartyr, and Cromwell, the practical man of business. And a paragraph follows that further elaborates on the difference between the medieval More and the modern Cromwell:
Under his clothes, it is well known, More wears a jerkin of horsehair. He beats himself with a small scourge, of the type used by some religious orders. What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell's, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture.... Are simple villagers paid -- how, by the dozen? -- for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farmworkers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labor is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product? ... He thinks, also, that people ought to be found better jobs.
Meanwhile, Cromwell's own legal business thrives, "and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker's fee." And this elicits a gibe from More: "Still serving your Hebrew God, I see.... I mean, your idol Usury." But Cromwell thinks himself lucky, with his thriving family.

But this, remember, is a scene from the past. When, as has been noted earlier, the plague has arrived. And, as noted still earlier, in the last chapter, when they arrived with the fallen cardinal at the grim house of exile, Cromwell reflected, somewhat surprisingly: "He doesn't need to think of going home; there's no home to go to, he's got no family left." So obviously the novel is about to tell us that something horrible has happened to the Cromwells.

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