The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: A review

Well, we knew how it was going to end, didn't we? Because, in spite of what you might have heard from a certain orange blowhard, facts are immutable and history cannot be rewritten. And so we knew that Thomas Cromwell's road with all of its convoluted machinations would one day lead him to an appointment with the ax.

But if we hadn't known that we might never have guessed it at the beginning of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel's third and final volume on the life of Cromwell. It is May 1536 and Cromwell is riding high. 

Mantel picks up the story just as Anne Boleyn has been beheaded by the executioner brought in specially for the purpose from Calais. Cromwell is a witness to the execution and afterward speaks with the executioner and admires his sword of Toledo steel that separated head from body. Then he goes to breakfast with those who had wanted Anne disposed of.

Anne had to be gotten rid of because Henry had tired of her and had lost patience with waiting for her to deliver him a son. He wanted to try his luck with a new wife and he already had her picked out: Jane Seymour, one of Anne's ladies in waiting. And, of course, it was his fixer, Thomas Cromwell, who provided the evidence of Anne's alleged crimes that allowed Henry to rid himself of her. Collateral damage included all the young men with whom she had supposedly had affairs - including her own brother, George - who were also beheaded.

After Anne's death, Cromwell's star continues to rise and he increases in power and influence with the king. Meanwhile, Henry's marriage to the virginal Jane is apparently a love match, but he is again disappointed when she does not immediately get pregnant with his much-desired son. After about three years, Jane is finally delivered of a son, Edward, after a hard labor of forty-eight hours. Jane was of a delicate build and the birth did severe damage to her body. Soon she suffered an infection and never recovered. She died, as did so many women after giving birth in those days. If the queen, who had the best medical care available at the time, could not be saved, it hardly bears thinking about what women of a lower class suffered.

So, Henry was free and on the marriage market again. It was unheard of for the king to be a bachelor. He had to be married and able to legally breed more kings in waiting. His two daughters, Mary from Catherine of Aragon and Elizabeth from Anne Boleyn, had both been declared bastards. An illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, had died only a few months after Anne. Henry needed more legal children in order to ensure the continuance of his line. And to whom did he look to find him a new bride? Why Thomas Cromwell, of course! 

At the time, France and the Holy Roman Empire had reached a rapprochement and England (and Cromwell) felt a need to make alliances that could protect the country from a possible attack by the new allies. Cromwell looked to Germany and the royalty of Cleves where there were two eligible princesses. The bargain was struck and Anna (or Anne) of Cleves came to England to marry the king.

It was not a successful marriage. Henry took a dislike to her almost immediately and found himself unable to consummate the marriage. There would be no royal children born from this match!

Henry seems to have blamed Cromwell for his unhappy marital estate and even though he continued to reward him and bestowed the Order of the Garter and ultimately named him the Earl of Essex, one senses a cooling of his attitude. It really is a masterful bit of writing that Mantel accomplishes here, as she leaves hints and clues that Cromwell's enemies are tightening the circle around him and that he is in mortal danger.

Does Cromwell realize it? He had been with the king for ten years and in that time he had conspired to rid his master of many inconvenient members of his court. He was an intelligent man so one feels that he must have, on some level, realized what was coming. He managed to get some of his money out of the country and admonished his son and nephew to renounce him after he was arrested. He knew there was no hope for him and his main concern at the end was that his family be protected.

And so, on July 28, 1540, we walk with him up the scaffold to meet the ax-man. Thus endeth the tale of the son of the brutal Putney blacksmith who rose to great heights and finally fell all the way back down. 

Hilary Mantel has accomplished a truly remarkable bit of story-telling with these three books of historical fiction. The first two won her back-to-back Man Booker Prizes. I think I can discern a third one waiting in the wings for her.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


  1. Think I'll just go and witness a decapitation and then we'll have breakfast. Hmm!

    1. You had to have a strong stomach to work for Henry VIII!

  2. Great! I am filled with anticipation, knowing I have this book in my future. I ordered it last week from the indie bookstore where I used to work. In fact, I ordered a load of books in an effort to help them in these uncertain times. I am thinking I will reread the first two books in Mantel's series as it has been so long. Lord knows, I have the time!

    1. I think rereading the first two books would be helpful. There are a bewildering number of characters as you probably remember and it's hard to keep them all straight. Fortunately, there is a list of the characters with their relationships at the front of the book. It took me a week and a half of slow reading to finish it.

  3. At the end did Cromwell have a lot of enemies in the Court, or mainly the King who wanted him axed? Your review is very good .... I read Book 2 .... but they take a lot of time and I probably wont get to this for quite awhile. But the atmosphere of her books seems amazingly done. Just all the suspicions ....

    1. He had made many enemies at court over the years and they helped to poison the king's mind against him. You are right about the atmosphere of suspicion and conspiracy, and Mantel is brilliant at conveying that subtly without laying it on with a trowel.

  4. Oooo, I really enjoy historical fiction and this one sounds divine!! Great review!

    1. Have you read the two earlier books in her series? This one is definitely a fitting sequel to them and the inevitable end of the Cromwell story.


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