“Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims,” Cromwell observes, in one of the many reminders to the reader that history holds up an imperfect mirror to the past, illuminated by a shifting light.

Hilary Mantel's final novel in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is scrupulously detailed and psychologically acute.

Hilary Mantel’s final novel in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is scrupulously detailed and psychologically acute.Credit:Els Zweerink

Cromwell has largely been remembered as the villain of the English Reformation, More’s nemesis, but Mantel shows him from a different perspective. He is the same fascinating tangle of contradictions we met in Wolf Hall, the son of a blacksmith who vaulted over barriers of rank and status to the highest offices of state. He inspires resentment in the noblemen around him, and fear in just about everyone. A “slab of an English”, as he describes himself, “like a traveling bruise in his darkish crimson”, he deliberately fails to dispel rumours that he is a murderer.

On page one Cromwell walks away from the bloody scene of Anne Boleyn’s beheading as if unaffected, thinking of second breakfast, stopping to thank the swordsman and admire his blade. But Boleyn haunts him: his thoughts turn repeatedly to her execution, each time unfolding new aspects of the scene: the stroke that killed her so swiftly, “easier than scissors through silk”, the arrow chest that served as an improvised coffin, the horror of the ladies-in-waiting who wrapped her head in linen and could not avoid all the blood.

Like a grand concluding movement to a symphony, this volume brings back themes and images like snatches of melody that with repetition become fully fledged refrains. Tension builds around them as the narrative edges closer to revealing their completed form, their apotheosis in Cromwell’s own final moments. Mantel’s narrative twists and turns against the inexorable forward motion of history, tracing the movements of Cromwell’s consciousness as it dips in and out of his own past.

This is a story about how a nation took shape, but it is equally a story of how Cromwell himself was formed as an individual, this man who acted with such huge force on the world. The two stories entwine and shape each other with such fluency that you wonder how history could ever be made sense of otherwise.

Thomas Cromwell as seen by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Thomas Cromwell as seen by Hans Holbein the Younger.Credit: Supplied

Mantel grants that Cromwell is a murderous engine, but he is also a complex man, ahead of his time: believer in women’s education, a former mercenary who works behind the scenes to avoid war, patron of the poor, a sincere Christian whose treasured goal is the translation of the Bible into English. Above all, he is a man traumatised by his own history, his mind roaming always back to his childhood, to images of his small body clouded with bruises.

One does not expect exhaustively detailed historical fiction about the Tudor Reformation to provoke laughter and tears within a few pages but this is where I found myself, encountering Mantel’s deadpan wit as she describes the bathos of a disgraced nobleman in custody who keeps trying to kill himself, including via eating a cushion. “The feathers fail to choke him,” Mantel writes. It’s funny.

And then it’s not. Cromwell’s world seems to encompass every corner of England and beyond, with a window into every place from blacksmith’s forge to prince’s palace. They are all places of cruel violence and the refined brutality of the nobility appears not so different from the blacksmith’s casual blows, rendered in detail that is all the more horrifying for its calm precision.

Cromwell shrinks from a childhood memory of seeing a person burned alive but it later pushes its way to the surface: having run away from home to escape his father’s relentless beatings he finds himself dragged by a stranger to witness the burning of a woman heretic.

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What breaks one’s heart is not the woman’s agony, although this is hard to bear. It is the agony of the child, Cromwell, sheltering afterwards in shock under the stage where the high-ranking spectators sat. Defenceless and alone, he faces down a pack of predatory dogs. In doing so he becomes the ruthless survivor we have come to know: this is his origin story.

“It was years before he realized the boy who went to Smithfield was not the one who came home,” he reflects. “The child Thomas still crouched under the stand, vigilant as the dogs … It is a work he has never undertaken, to go back and retrieve himself. He can see that small figure, at the wrong end of time; he can feel the heave of its ribs as it tries to cry without uttering.”

The implacable powerbroker is at heart a suffering, vulnerable creature: like ourselves, Mantel suggests, however estranged he might be from our present moment.

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