Tudors and Stuarts, the two royal dynasties most familiar to every British school child of my generation, can provide mouth-watering backdrops for historical fiction.
In very broad stokes, the Tudor monarchs, beginning in 1485 with Henry VII, were about religious strife, the quest for stability, and a clean succession. Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, established himself and his court as the ultimate authority on all things religious. Queen Mary, Henry’s elder daughter, brought England back to Rome in the 1550s before Elizabeth I, Henry’s second daughter, re-established the English church again as the ultimate authority under the power of the English monarch.
While exploration to the New World was in vogue for Tudor gentleman explorers such as Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake, it was during the post-1604 Stuarts that a fresh wave of exploration bore significant fruit and reached into the popular imagination. The newly-formed East India Company looked to plunder in one direction while, in the other, fresh colonial enterprises sought to claim the treasures of North America. New plantations were established, for instance, in Virginia in 1607 and parts of New England. Further north, John Guy landed in Cuper’s Cove, Newfoundland, in 1610.
Three recent novels seek to further define the themes of each age, often highlighting parallels with our own time.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring up the Bodies (2015) are the first two novels in a planned trilogy which will culminate in this spring’s The Mirror and the Light. The trilogy brings us Henry VIII’s most turbulent years. Our guide is master politician Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is driven by an ambition neither he, nor the reader, fully understands.
Wolf Hall, the first of three Cromwell novels
Already a wealthy man by most standards, Cromwell starts political life as an agent for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and the nearest equivalent of today’s ‘prime minister’. Wolsey answers directly to the king.
By the late 1520s, Henry wants Wolsey to persuade the pope to approve his divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that, as Catherine was his brother’s widow, the match was incestuous. This blasphemy, Henry believes, is the reason the marriage has failed to produce a male heir.
As the pope is soon under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Catherine of Aragon’s nephew), Wolsey’s task becomes impossible. The cardinal’s enemies close in but Cromwell remains loyal, despite the urging of his friends to abandon Wolsey. Foreshadowing Cromwell’s career, the cardinal himself outlines the danger for any servant of the king: Wolsey says, you know he will take the credit for your good ideas, and you the blame for his bad ones? When fortune turns against you, you will feel her lash: you always, he never.
Sick and under a gentile form of house arrest, Wolsey dies. But Cromwell’s friends were wrong. In faithfully pleading the cardinal’s case to Henry, Cromwell has already impressed the king. He continues in the ascent that will see him stepping into Wolsey’s shoes as key adviser.
The late cardinal becomes a whimsical thread in Cromwell’s thoughts. When Cromwell feels delighted about the way a day’s work has gone, Wolsey is apt to appear with fresh warnings.
But Cromwell cannot resist the urge to serve Henry regardless of the consequences. Things are stacked up against him. Like Wolsey, the son of a butcher, Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, is from too low a birth for the well-born courtiers who surround him. He has to contend with their open contempt and hostility and must be several times cleverer than his enemies. With many years spent on the continent of Europe as a soldier, gambler and all-round chancer, Cromwell is up for the task.
And he can see an opportunity to get on Henry’s good side. He can promise the one thing the monarch values most, money: [Cromwell’s] guess is, the clergy own a third of England. One day soon, Henry will ask him how the Crown will own it instead.
The idea of a wily politician managing the desires of a temperamental leader seems thoroughly modern. Dealing with Henry, Cromwell reflects, is like dealing with a child; one day you bring in a box, and the child asks, what is in there? Then it goes to sleep and forgets, but next day, it asks again.
Mantel’s Henry VIII is intellectually and emotionally stunted in comparison with the advisers who have to serve him. But, once allowances have been made for the brutality of the age, he is also warm and sincere. He is subject to nightmares and superstition and genuinely believes his first marriage is against God’s will. Unexpectedly, Mantel also reveals how in hindsight both Cromwell and Henry are on the right side of some social issues.
Henry VIII in Bring up the Bodies: more progressive than we thought.
In Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell, with Henry’s support, prepares a bill for parliament to provide wages for out-of-work men to help repair roads and bridges. This has become increasingly important as the breach with Rome has made England vulnerable to attack from Charles V: We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich.
The nobles in parliament balk, arguing furiously that feeding and housing the poor is against the natural order. The bill does not pass. It is curious to encounter in the infamous monarch sentiments that place him in a more progressive light than some 21st century Conservative MPs. But Mantel’s exhaustive research, as well as her eye for irony and contradiction, unearth many such surprises.
Not least of these is a rethinking of the Catholic saint, Thomas More, a man who always has the last word and the better turn of phrase than his detractors but who, in Cromwell’s eyes, is a “vain and dangerous man.” By the standards of his time, Mantel’s Cromwell is something of a libertarian as far as religion is concerned. He happily conceals the identity and whereabouts of William Tyndale. Tyndale is a wanted man whose crime is to have translated the Bible — only read by clergy and scholars in Latin, Hebrew, or Greek — into English.
This allows the population to see for themselves that the practices encouraged by the church such as indulgences — money paid to the clergy to shorten the time a loved one spends in purgatory — are inventions with no foundation in scripture. More, Wolsey’s successor as chancellor, has Cromwell’s Tyndale-supporting friends tortured and burned.
For those, like myself, who are the product of Catholic education, this reversal — brokerage politician Cromwell being so much more human, and more sympathetic, than idealist More — is unaccustomed territory. But it’s entirely plausible and rooted in historical fact.
Against his will, Cromwell himself becomes an agent of destruction. In Wolf Hall, his duty to Henry demands he either force More to sign an oath declaring new wife Anne Boleyn’s children the only legitimate heirs to the throne, or he must engineer More’s execution. In Bring up the Bodies, Anne herself falls out of favour when she fails to produce a male heir.
An overarching theme for both novels becomes vicarious revenge. Cromwell does not enjoy causing the downfall of others but, as he must to this to serve the king, he makes sure the collateral damage punishes those who caused Wolsey’s demise. Through rumor, court gossip, and dishonest bragging, a number of Anne’s confidantes and Wolsey’s enemies become implicated in Anne’s secret — and probably non-existent — love life. This, of course, is treason.
Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies present a closeted world of corridors and dark secrets. The reader lives inside Cromwell’s head. We see everything though his crepuscular lens and the reader-protagonist intimacy is sustained through some narrative oddities such as attributing speech to all the characters by name but Cromwell only by use of “He.”
Recurring symbolism reinforces this sense of cloisters turning ever inwards. The ailing Wolsey gives Cromwell his turquoise ring as a parting gift. Around the same time a litter of black kittens is born under the cardinal’s bed. One is adopted by Cromwell to grow and become feral prowling the grounds of his home. Cromwell is therefore anointed twice; he has received Wolsey’s blessing and also his curse of ambition.
In Trudy Morgan-Cole’s A Roll of the Bones we shift from narrow, dark corridors, and poetic conceits into breezy daylight and swiftly changing points of view. The contrast befits the new era of exploration. The story has become about ordinary people — tradesmen, wives, and servants — who might realize their ambitions through voyage.
Roll of the Bones: uncharted history of women and ordinary folk
John Guy’s Bristol plantation, established on the east coast of Newfoundland in 1610, provided a chance for breaking free of narrowly defined fate. As Morgan-Cole’s young colonist Ned decides, “here…in the year of our Lord 1610, there would be such a chance–for any brave man to throw over a good apprenticeship and a safe path. Shuffle the cards, cast the dice, roll the bones: take a chance.”
By signing on as one of Guy’s 39 skilled men to land on Newfoundland’s shores, Ned achieves a promotion from apprentice to stonemason.
Not all transitions are straightforward. Eighteen-year-old Kathryn has married Bristol tradesman Nicholas Guy, a cousin to the colony leader. She sees him as a kind man and is shocked when he announces to his relatives that he, too, will join the expedition to Newfoundland. The other expedition members consulted their spouses first, Kathryn complains.
Nicholas adds insult to injury: “At their time of life, a husband would naturally seek the counsel of a wife who is mature and has proven her worth.”
Morgan-Cole’s historical fiction often delves into the the layered stories that lie behind textbook history, especially the uncharted history of women. In Kathryn, and her companion Nancy, the author explores the social straitjackets in which seventeenth century women could find themselves. New wife Kathryn is already in a (mainly unacknowledged) battle with her sister-in-law over details like what to buy and cook for dinner. She sees herself as mistress, but her rival seems to claim household supremacy without effort.
Worse, Kathryn has to “prove her worth” by not causing ructions in the house. For her husband’s comfort, everything must appear serene.
She must practice another kind of patience too. In history, and in Morgan-Cole’s novel, the perilous journey across the Atlantic to Cuper’s Cove (or Cupids Cove) was undertaken only by men until, in 1612, when wives and other women joined the colony. Morgan-Cole playfully entitles one chapter A Parcel of Females is Delivered.
But the reader feels the tension of the men waiting to see their wives: Nicholas Guy was also straining to see the faces of the women in the boat. “I believe that be my wife,” Guy said, but when Ned looked back at the boat he saw not Kathryn but Nancy.”
Intriguingly, in letters sent across the ocean, Morgan-Cole’s prose reverts to seventeenth century-style construction and spelling. The effect of this stylistic shift is to present the reader with something that feels like an artifact from the era and it draws us even more securely into the story.
Other than the letters, the prose in Roll of the Bones is flowing and sensuous. The reader experiences the smell of mud and dung as Kathryn trudges through a Bristol market. We feel the swell of the sea while Ned, as a crew member of the Indeavour, travels north along Newfoundland’s coastline in search of the island’s native people.
With both Mantel and Morgan-Cole’s fiction, the eras in question are brought to life in the very texture of the writing. Perhaps this is the highest kind of achievement for a historical novel.
Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire