Last week on CNN, Donald Trump was talking again about his suspicions that President Obama was not born in the United States. Anchor John King wasted no words in concluding that Trump’s continuing refusal to let this topic die is symptomatic of some Americans’ refusal to accept that an African American man could legitimately hold the office of president. Two nights later, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Trump on this subject, and the interview quickly devolved into a volley of insults: “Are you aware that you sound ridiculous?” Blitzer finally asked, his stony face impassive as always.
As tired as most Americans are of this ‘birther’ debate, this question of legitimate authority is one that history has raised again and again. It is the central question asked in Shakespeare’s history plays and in many of his best tragedies. What gives a person the right to rule – over nations or over his own destiny?
Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies – the sequel to her 2009 novel Wolf Hall – is set at the center of one of European history’s most divisive battles concerning the legitimacy of authority. It is a novel of politics, and like many works of literature that explore politics – Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are two that come immediately to mind – this novel’s protagonist is not the man at the top of the political hierarchy (in this case, Henry VIII) but one of the many men who vie for power, recognition, and security in the positions just below. Thomas Cromwell, also the hero of Wolf Hall, rose to his title of Master Secretary to the king from his common birth as the son of a blacksmith. American history features the rise of any number of such individuals to positions of considerable power: Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.
And of course, this novel is not really – or not just – about the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s status as queen or about the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s authority over the English church or about the legitimacy of the Pope’s authority over political sovereigns; it is also about Cromwell’s own struggle (if we can use the word ‘struggle’ to describe a process that this protagonist profoundly enjoys) to establish and maintain his own legitimacy as the king’s Master Secretary. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s father Walter is an occasional physical presence. His violence is the impetus that sends Thomas away from home and starts him on the trajectory that eventually leads him into the service of the king. In Bring up the Bodies, Walter, who has passed away, is a more frequent and more ambivalent figurative presence in his son’s life. Thomas is constantly reminded that he is the son of a blacksmith – a rough, violent, drunken man whose livelihood was to manipulate fire. In this novel, the fiftysomething Cromwell is more willing to accept his father’s inheritance: “He often thinks about it, [his father’s] iron belly. And he thinks he has got one, without the inconvenience and weight of metal. ‘Cromwell has plenty stomach,’ his friends say; his enemies too. They mean he has appetite, gusto, attack” (226). He also posits his own possible complicity in his father’s violence – a theory that would be immediately rejected by most practitioners of 21st-century psychology, in which any individual is either abuser or victim, never both, but that I believe is valid: “You wonder what else you have always believed, believed without foundation… What if, he thinks, Walter didn’t hate me? What if he was just exasperated with me, and showed it by kicking me around the brewery yard? What if I deserved it? Because I was always crowing, ‘Item, I have a better head for drink than you; Item, I have a better head for everything. Item, I am a prince of Putney and can wallop anybody from Wimbledon, let them come from Mortlake and I will mince them. Item, I am already one inch taller than you, look at the door where I have put a notch, go on, go on, father, go and stand against the wall” (160). Thomas Cromwell has achieved the heights he has because of his “iron stomach” and his chutzpah; not all beaten children, in the sixteenth century or otherwise, rise to the position of king’s Master Secretary. However, in middle age Cromwell is recognizing that the legitimacy of his authority is rooted in part in the brutality of his childhood. He deserves his position of power not because he was born into a royal line or because God attended his birth with astrological omens but because at fifteen he rose from under his father’s kicks and walked away.
Cromwell’s character is shaped not only by his identity as a son but by his identity as a father. Having lost his wife and two daughters to illness and still living very much within the shadow of his grief for them, he is a patient, attentive, and accommodating father to his son, Gregory, yet he is aware that if he chooses deliberately to be everything his own father wasn’t, he runs the risk of raising a son who becomes everything he himself isn’t: sluggish, naïve, trusting, passive. Raising happy, sated children who view the world as a safe place is a mark of privilege and status that Cromwell has earned, but he rightly feels ambivalent about the worldview he is passing along to his son. He is constantly buying houses and land: footholds in the world that he himself rarely has time to enjoy but that he knows (or hopes) will shelter his descendants in the future. Like most modern men, Cromwell is constantly forced to choose between time and money. He is “entrapped… into desk-bound days prolonged by candlelight into desk-bound nights; sometimes he would give a king’s ransom to see the sun” (101). Cromwell’s life bears more in common to my own life in 2012 than to the life he was raised to live as the son of a Putney blacksmith. “He is buying land in the lusher parts of England, but he has no leisure to visit it; so these farms, these ancient manors in their walled gardens, these watercourses with their little quays, these ponds with their gilded fish rising to the hook; these vineyards, flower gardens, arbours and walks, remain to him flat, each one a paper construct, a set of figures on a page of accounts: not sheep-nibbled margins, nor meadows where kine stand knee-deep in grass, not coppices or groves where a white doe shivers, a hoof poised; but parchment domains, leases and freeholds delimited by inky clauses, not by ancient hedges or boundary stones. His acres are notional acres, sources of income, sources of dissatisfaction in the small hours, when he wakes up and his mind explores their geography: in these waking nights before sullen or frozen dawns, he thinks not of the freedom his holdings allow, but of the trampling intrusion of others, their easements and rights of way, their fences and vantage points, that allow them to impinge on his boundaries and interfere with his quiet possession of the future” (101-2). Three hundred years later, Henry David Thoreau moved to the woods near Concord, MA to protest the kind of lifestyle that Cromwell is helping to pioneer in this novel.
And this life of constant insomnia, acquisition of property, account balancing, and compromise has everything to do, for Cromwell, with fatherhood and sonship. This is a novel that is constantly preoccupied with generations and succession, both within the royal family and in other families: the Boleyns, the Cromwells, the Seymours. The exiled Katherine of Aragon (often called “the queen that was”) and her Spanish and Catholic allies lobby and scheme up until and beyond the moment of her death to protect and promote her daughter Mary, who is known only as “the Spanish bastard” by the Boleyn camp, and the Boleyns exercise similar subterfuge on behalf of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth and any hypothetical male children that may issue from Anne’s womb. If the Middle Ages were about minimizing the self in the service of God and king, the early modern period is an era of jockeying for power and status for oneself and – most importantly – for one’s children. As Henry’s marriage with Anne Boleyn moves toward its dissolution, his illegitimate son is referred to as “a commodity… to be reckoned with… to be secured” (172), indicating that Henry, Cromwell, and everyone else in their circle view human interrelationships as a web of infinite possibilities for advancement, decline, and outright revolution – not as the linear hierarchy proceeding predictably from rocks to God as delineated in the medieval paradigm of the Great Chain of Being.
The theme of fathers and sons in this novel is only enhanced by the fact that the Catholic church – from which Henry VIII has just split in his dispute with the Pope over his decision to divorce Katherine of Aragon – uses the father-son relationship as the central metaphor in its theology. Not only is God a father and Jesus a son, but priests are given the title of ‘Father’ and the Pope is given the title of ‘Holy Father’ over all of Christendom. Just as the young Thomas Cromwell walked away from the authority of his own father and eventually adopted first the late Cardinal Wolsey and later – with much more trepidation but no less loyalty – King Henry VIII, as his surrogate fathers, King Henry has recently declared his own independence from the Holy Father in Rome. When the young Cromwell ran away from home, he freed himself from one familiar source of terror but made himself vulnerable to a world of new and unknown dangers, and the person he has become by his sixth decade is canny, determined, self-sufficient, and profoundly slow to confide in and trust others. He has become a warrior administrator (Have I just coined a term? I’ve known more than a couple of people in my career who could answer to this description.) whose acts of violence are committed via whispered conferences and signatures on documents. Cromwell notes that “sometimes peace looks like war…. In Portugal there is a drought; and everywhere, envy and contention, fear of the future, fear of hunger or the fact of it, fear of God and doubt over how to placate him, and in what language” (225), but implicit in his actions is the fact that war can sometimes look like peace too. Lives can be both ruined and ended by a signature in this novel, just as they can in the present day. One of Cromwell’s shrewdest moves as a politician is the way he reconciles the lives that he must ruin in order to obey Henry’s demand that he finesse a divorce between Henry and Anne Boleyn by targeting four men who were complicit in the death of Cardinal Wolsey – the surrogate father figure to whom Cromwell’s loyalty is pure and unsullied. Henry VIII, by the way, was intimately complicit in Wolsey’s murder as well, but self-interest enables Cromwell to selectively forget that his current patron arranged the murder of his previous mentor in his own pursuit of power. Hamlet would be a different play if the Danish prince could control his rage as well as Thomas Cromwell.
The historical Thomas Cromwell’s life span (1485-1540) overlaps neatly with that of another individual who is not present in the novel but who serves as a spiritual father of sorts for the crafty Cromwell: Machiavelli. Born in 1469, Machiavelli published The Prince in 1532, one year before Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. While his work is more complex than this statement makes it appear, The Prince is often remembered in the popular imagination by the phrase “the end justifies the means.” Cromwell certainly exhibits this kind of thinking in some of his actions, but in orchestrating the downfall of the Boleyns, he almost seems to have in mind the idea that the means justify the ends. He is being asked to do something distasteful and most likely morally unjust – but he finds a way to accomplish his assigned task that takes down four of his own enemies, thus mitigating the injustice of the act in his own mind. Cromwell is a master of keeping his own motivations a secret, of remembering everything that has happened to him while seeming to forgive the transgressions of his superiors – of, simply put, a diabolical patience. Lapsing into the second person in what seems an attempt to distance himself from his own actions, he describes the importance of acting decisively when bringing down one’s enemies: “Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand” (351). In my notes on the novel, I jotted Orwellian? in the margin beside this passage, but later I went back and added or simply Nixonian? Clintonian? in acknowledgement of the fact that what Cromwell is describing here is a very modern attitude toward the use of political power.
While outwardly steadfast in exerting his authority, Cromwell inwardly doubts that he deserves the power and authority that he has achieved. In Cromwell’s time, there is little precedent for someone like him. Nowadays, if anything, it is the person who has inherited his money and power and is perceived by society as not having ‘earned’ it that must prove himself to others; we are much more skeptical of the idea that God assigns people into roles as kings, popes, priests, and peasants. As an American, though, I read this novel with a very palpable awareness that it was the religious and social rebellions of Cromwell’s era that led to the excesses of the English Civil War and the Reformation, and, therefore, that brought so many British dissidents to North America in the seventeenth century to found colonies and universities, build churches, and plant the seeds for the political and religious Gordian knot that I have lived in all my life. The idea that a person born to squalor can and should rise above his origin into the highest positions of power is an American idea, but it did not originate here. We are who we are as a nation because we are the descendants of people who, like Cromwell, got up from a prone position on cobblestones splattered with their own blood and boarded the next outward barge on the Thames. And it seems that we have never stopped bludgeoning each other with the broken fragments of the Great Chain of Being.
Mantel closes her novel with a hint of what is to come for Thomas Cromwell: “Summer, 1536: he is promoted Baron Cromwell. He cannot call himself Lord Cromwell of Putney. He might laugh. However. He can call himself Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. He ranged all over those fields, when he was a boy” (407). I love the idea of Cromwell (who, by this point, is a metonym for any person from any time and place who has triumphed over humble origins) chuckling to himself at the absurdity of calling himself Lord Cromwell of Putney. The first time I ever saw Hope, Arkansas – Bill Clinton’s birthplace – I was taking a whirlwind road trip with a friend from Germany. I wasn’t the one who wanted to pull off the highway just before dawn after an all-night drive through Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas; my friend was. The mystique of Hope was well known in Germany, and she said she would never be able to face her friends and family at home if she drove through Arkansas without stopping to see the house where Clinton was born into a family marked by poverty, alcoholism, and ignorance. After we pulled off the highway, we stopped in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly, warily eyeing a dozen or so mangy stray dogs sniffing at dumpsters, and watched the eastern sky turn from indigo to pink to orange to pale blue as we waited sleepily for the store to open so we could ask a local resident for directions to the Clinton birthplace. “I can’t believe it,” said my sophisticated and worldly German friend. “I really can’t believe it.”
“The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair,” Mantel writes in the novel’s final paragraph. An ‘imp’ is a mischievous being that is usually characterized as having human shape, but the verb ‘coiled’ suggests a snake. And as every fifteen year-old who has taken freshman English knows, a snake is never just a snake. A snake is always THAT snake – the tempter and deceiver that appeared to Eve in the Garden of Eden and turned her attention toward the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While I know I am veering away from accepted doctrine here, I have never been comfortable with the idea that the snake in Genesis represents evil. In no theology that I can accept is a creature that heightens our curiosity about the world doing the work of the devil. I can accept words like ‘crafty’ and ‘devious,’ but not ‘evil.’ As I used to tell my freshmen, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden banned them from a place that was familiar and safe – in other words, from the place they were born into on the Great Chain of Being – but it did not ban them from anything that I think can rightly be called Paradise. Paradise exists in possibility. In Mantel’s closing sentences, the word ‘however’ functions like the Hebrew word ‘timshel’ (translated as “Thou mayest”) functions in Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden: “It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.” (407)