The twice-winner of the Man Booker Prize has found new riches in the otherwise exhausted seam of Tudor history

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel for winning the Man Booker Prize for the second time with Bring Up the Bodies.

The winning novel is a sequel to her previous book Wolf Hall, and there will be another volume about Thomas Cromwell to come. I have read both of them so far, and may well read the third. Bring up the Bodies is a far better novel than Wolf Hall, to my mind, and the third in the sequence, when it comes, ought to be good, because in it Miss Mantel will be confronted with the enigma of Cromwell’s death. Why did Henry VIII do such a foolish thing and get rid of his most capable minister? And how did Cromwell feel about it? We do have his letter from the Tower to the King begging for “mercy, mercy, mercy”, but it will be interesting to see Mantel rescuing Cromwell’s character from its usual presentation as a nasty bloke who got what he deserved.

In the second volume she also had to confront a few historical puzzles. There is much we know about Anne Boleyn, but much that is uncertain too. Was she guilty as charged? Why were the charges so carelessly drawn up? (It has been shown she was not actually in many of the places at the time when she was supposed to have been committing adultery there.) Was she guilty of something else, if innocent of these charges? Mantel’s contribution to this debate is rather unusual and arresting (look away now if you still want to read the book).

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According to the novel, Anne and her circle of friends are sent to their doom by Cromwell out of revenge for the way they insulted his former patron Cardinal Wolsey. This assumes that Cromwell had a loving side to him, as opposed to being just coldly calculating – he loved Wolsey and wanted revenge. Moreover, the person who suggests that sending Anne to a convent or into exile is perhaps not enough – in other words that she should be executed – is none other than sweet Jane Seymour, which certainly sheds new light on her character.

We have no hard evidence about who initiated the fall of Anne Boleyn and her friends. It may have been Cromwell, getting in a pre-emptive strike before she removed him. But my guess, and most people’s guess, is that the Queen was removed at the behest of the King, and no one would have dared move against her unless the King had moved against her first. But it is quite probable that Jane Seymour’s relatives, if not the girl herself, must have been very pleased at the thought of no ex-queen being alive when Jane married the King, and even more pleased when she produced an heir of unimpeachable legitimacy.

Interesting to think that we are still fascinated by this Tudor monarch and his headless queens. I have written about this and will no doubt do so again. It reminds me that whatever they say about the study of history it is the great men, and women, who really command our fascination. Miss Mantel has done extremely well to find new riches in what is otherwise an exhausted seam. But what will she tackle next? The blameless domestic life of King William IV and Queen Adelaide?

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