2020欧洲杯足球即时比分

The real history behind Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light

Mantel’s rich fictional world matches what the sources say with uncanny precision, finds historian Thomas Penn

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Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Hans Hobein the Younger, detail (1532)
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Hans Hobein the Younger, (1532) Credit: Corbis Historical

In July 6 1536 Princess Mary, Henry VIII’s estranged daughter, was reconciled with her father in an emotional meeting at Brooke House in Hackney. Among those present was the meeting’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. As he looks on, Cromwell ponders how future chroniclers might reimagine the reunion: “They will not have witnessed, they could not record, the Lady Mary’s wobbling curtsy, or how the king’s face flushes as he crosses the room and sweeps her up… his gasp, his sob, his broken endearments and the hot tears that spring from his eyes.”

This is a scene from The Mirror and the Light, and this is Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell: one of the most powerful fictional creations of the early 21st century.  But – like so much in Mantel’s extraordinary Wolf Hall trilogy – the reconciliation did in fact happen. It was recorded for posterity by, among others, the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador to England, Eustace Chapuys, who notes in a dispatch, two days after the reconciliation took place: “It is impossible to describe the king’s kind and affectionate behaviour towards the princess, his daughter.” Impossible, that is, until seen through the eyes of Mantel’s Cromwell.

In Cromwell, Mantel has created a character with a fully realised interiority. We sit behind his eyes experiencing the new Tudor world that he attempts to drag into being. Her genius as a novelist is bound up with a phenomenal historical rigour and imagination. She is at one with the complex, often fragmentary source material of Cromwell’s life. Her achievement is to transmute this material, the stuff of archival research, into something truly astonishing: a fictionalised Tudor world that maps with uncanny precision on to the historical account.

2020欧洲杯足球即时比分Mantel herself has talked about myth and history, fiction and fact: about whether there is a “firm divide” between them, or whether we “move back and forth on a line between, our position indeterminate and always shifting”. In the Wolf Hall trilogy, her blurring of that line is exquisitely fine. It is precisely Mantel’s knowledge of historical sources – their partiality, their allusiveness, the way their meanings slide, buckle and crack according to perspective and context – that allows her to create her Cromwell. 

The Cromwell of record, for instance, did do his best for the errant Princess Mary, who appreciated his efforts; he tried – at times – to save courtiers from themselves, and from the executioner’s block; his violent temper did betray him, as attested by the slanging matches with his twin nemeses the Duke of Norfolk and the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. At times, it pulls you up short to see these historical records anew, through Mantel’s lens: to realise that, in a paroxysm of religious fervour, Cromwell did actually shout that if Henry VIII turned from the path of what he believed the true religion, he, Cromwell, would fight against his own monarch, “with my sword in my hand”.

Booker Prize winner Dame Hilary Mantel at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2017 Credit: David Levenson

Mantel feels for the tears in the historical fabric and slips imperceptibly through them. The women in Cromwell’s life, generally not so well documented, assume vivid form: his wife and daughters, long dead; other daughters, alive; ladies of court. One encounter, with Catherine Parr, feels like a scene from a sonnet by that incomparable poet-courtier-diplomat-spy Thomas Wyatt, whose own work figures forth the paranoid mentality of the ageing Henry’s court. As Wyatt himself once put it: “It is a small thing in altering of one syllable either with pen or word that may make in the conceiving of truth much matter or error.” 

Mantel revels in Wyatt’s world of subjectivities: twisted words, rumours of hearsay, half-truths, alternative facts. Did the historical Cromwell really entertain thoughts of marrying Princess Mary and placing himself on the English throne as Henry’s successor? Some, at least, thought so.

Mantel’s Cromwell rests on solid historical bedrock. The great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton saw Cromwell as the agent behind the “Tudor revolution in government”; more recently, Diarmaid MacCulloch – superlatively disproving Elton’s belief that Cromwell was “not biographable” – has teased out the historical Cromwell’s religious radicalism and his own dynastic preoccupations. This, despite the fact that huge swathes of his “out tray” are missing: burned, MacCulloch hypothesises, by Cromwell’s servants to avoid incriminating their master, “for a man is much more easily convicted by his own writings than by the letters he has received”. 

2020欧洲杯足球即时比分The historian’s loss is Mantel’s gain. It’s in spaces like these that her Cromwell takes up residence. Mantel knows instinctively where a historian cannot go, and consequently where she, a novelist, can. This is just one of the reasons why she is able to summon up a fully realised world, and why the Wolf Hall trilogy is one of the great fictional achievements of our age. 

2020欧洲杯足球即时比分When, in mid-1540, the historical Cromwell wrote to Henry VIII for his life, he ended with a postscript: “Most gracious prince: I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy.” In citing this document, MacCulloch wonders whether Henry heard these letters read out to him. Mantel takes the leap. In The Mirror and the Light, the letters are read out at Henry’s insistence, not once but twice. The second time, savouring his former minister’s desperation, the king commands the reader to skip most of the letter and go straight to the end: “Read where he makes his pleas.” 

Thomas Penn’s latest history is The Brothers York published by Allen Lane. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the

The real history behind Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light