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The Mirror and the Light

Two years have passed since Thomas Cromwell's promotion to chief minister. He is now confident in his position as King Henry VIII's most valuable ally, but with the king's health declining, and his fits of rage growing ever more severe, how long will Thomas Cromwell's immunity to the royal wrath last?

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The Mirror and the Light

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Two years have passed since Thomas Cromwell's promotion to chief minister. He is now confident in his position as King Henry VIII's most valuable ally, but with the king's health declining, and his fits of rage growing ever more severe, how long will Thomas Cromwell's immunity to the royal wrath last?

Everyone is treading carefully in Henry's Tudor palace. One wrong move could result in death. Until now, Thomas Cromwell has masterfully navigated the court with impressive dexterity, but the political landscape is changing. Even Cromwell must be on his guard if he is to avoid the King's temperamental nature. Welcome, to the Mirror and the Light and the end of Cromwell's journey.

The Mirror and the Light Hilary: Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel always had a flair for historical fiction writing. Born in Derbyshire, England, in 1952, she would attend The University of Sheffield before writing her first novel, Every Day is Mother's Day, in 1985. Two of her earliest historical novels, Fludd (1989) and A Place of Greater Safety (1992), were positively received but failed to reach a wider audience.

With the release of Wolf Hall (2009), a historical fiction novel based told from the perspective of Henry VIII's trusted adviser, Mantel's fame skyrocketed. Along with two sequel books, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020), Mantel's stunning recreation of Tudor history helped her achieve worldwide success. The three books, known collectively as the 'Thomas Cromwell trilogy' were received with universal acclaim.

Mantel labels her meticulous research and writing process as one of the primary reasons for the success of her work. She aimed to get as close to her source material as possible, using documents written by Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys (1489-1556) and the writings of Cromwell himself. She studied the period's history intently and ensured that the locations of all characters were historically accurate.

That said, Mantel acknowledged the necessity to fill historical gaps with her interpretation of events. Her work is by no means a purely factual history of Cromwell's life. Mantel has expertly chosen the novel's dialogue to reflect her view of historical events. Throughout the novel, she proves that she has both the knowledge base of a historian and the artistic flair of an incredible novelist.

While many novels have been written on the subject of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his wives, few have ever looked at the story from a different perspective. Through her unique depiction of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel is commended with bringing a lesser-known historical figure into the public imagination.

In most historical accounts, Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as ruthless, cruel and power-hungry. In her trilogy of novels, Mantel looks at Tudor history from a different angle, instead choosing to depict Cromwell sympathetically. He is characterised as ambitious, hard-working, efficient and talented, working to serve his King and country to the best of his ability. He is an expert negotiator, multitalented and, until the very end, a specialist at maintaining the King's happiness. In short, he is the perfect statesman.

Mantel's efforts to humanise Cromwell offer an alternative, fresh perspective on an area of history that many scholars believed had exhausted all new interpretations.

The Mirror and the Light Thomas Cromwell StudySmarterFig 1. Thomas Cromwell was an English lawyer and statesman. Between 1534 and 1540 he served as the chief adviser for King Henry VIII.

The first two books in the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, won consecutive Booker prizes in the years that they were released. Her final novel, The Mirror and the Light, was also shortlisted for the prestigious award.

The Mirror and the Light was Mantel's final novel written in her lifetime. She died in 2022 from complications after having a stroke.

The Mirror and the Light: characters

Each character in The Mirror and the Light is based on an actual historical figure. While Mantel fills in necessary gaps with her own dialogue, the activities, actions and routines of every character were designed to closely mirror how the figures would have reacted to the world around them.

CharacterExplanation
Thomas CromwellThe first two novels in Mantel's trilogy detail Thomas Cromwell's meteoric rise to power. Initially the son of a brewer and blacksmith, Cromwell ascended to become Henry VIII's most trusted adviser through a combination of determination, intelligence and reliability. By the time the events of The Mirror and the Light take place, Cromwell is the most powerful man in England, second only to the King himself. He is highly competent, controlling politics within the courts expertly. This is useful because he has many enemies who would love to dethrone him from his position. He needs to stay one step ahead at all times. Despite this, as Cromwell's power grows, so does his arrogance. He is becoming overconfident in the security of his position.
King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII is the King of England. After having his second wife, Anne Boleyn, arrested and executed for treason, Henry marries Jane Seymour. With his health in decline, the King's temper is growing more volatile each day, and he is increasingly ruthless with his enemies.
Jane SeymourJane Seymour is the third wife of Henry VIII. Originally a lady-in-waiting from Wolf Hall, Jane is plain, sweet-tempered and docile, which is precisely what King Henry is looking for after his turbulent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Jane dies after complications after giving birth to Henry's first male son, Edward.
Rafe SadlerRafe is Thomas Cromwell's chief clerk, and the man Cromwell is training to be his successor. Rafe is intelligent, witty and intuitive. Cromwell raised him since he was seven years old, and loves him like his own son.

The Mirror and the Light: synopsis

The synopsis of The Mirror and the Light opens where Mantel's previous novel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012), left off. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, has been executed. King Henry is head of his own branch of Christianity, known as the Church of England. This puts him in direct opposition to Catholicism, making Henry an unpopular figure throughout Europe. Even more troubling is the King's lack of a male heir, which leaves the future of his lineage uncertain.

With the Tudor dynasty at risk, Henry VIII's temper is growing ever more severe. Public gossip circulates about who will be next to fall to the King's volatile nature. Even Cromwell, who has until now expertly navigated Henry's treacherous courts, is beginning to feel uneasy about the King's temperamental disposition. The King's new wife, Jane Seymour, is under enormous pressure to produce a male heir and bring stability to the country.

In an attempt to improve his position and strengthen his Kingdom, Henry enlists Cromwell to dissolve all of the abbeys and monasteries associated with the Catholic church. This serves two purposes: it will allow the king to acquire wealth and property while suppressing his political and religious opposition.

Henry VIII's destruction of the monasteries is one of the defining events in English history. Perhaps the saddest result to come from the dissolution was the destruction of monastic libraries. Thousands of crucial historic texts that may have told scholars more about the period were lost during this time.

The Mirror and the Light Glastonbury Abbey StudySmarterFig 2. The remnants of Henry VIII's destruction are still visible today. This image depicts Glastonbury Abbey, which was dissolved and destroyed in 1539 following the execution of the abbot that resided there.

A rebellion forms and marches upon the Kingdom in protest of Henry's actions. The court is concerned that, should France or Scotland make an attack, the rebels will ally with them and pose a significant threat. While the King succeeds in squashing the rebellion, it comes at a substantial financial cost. Increasingly frustrated with the resistance against him, Henry becomes mercilessly violent when dealing with those that oppose him.

Working behind the scenes, Cromwell attempts to keep the peace. He encourages the King's daughter Mary to sign a bill supporting Henry VIII as the head of the official head of the Church of England. Previously, Mary has remained devoted to her Catholic mother, Katherine of Aragon. Now, Cromwell sees the danger behind Henry's volatility and encourages her to change sides before it is too late. Rumours circulate that Cromwell is trying to marry Mary himself so that he can revolt against the King and steal the throne.

All frustrations are cut short when Jane, who has been pregnant for some time, gives birth to Edward, Henry's first male heir. Unfortunately, the celebration comes to an end when Jane subsequently dies. It is once again time for Cromwell to find a suitable match for the King. Cromwell's options are limited because the King is almost entirely isolated from Europe.

It was common at the time for members of royal dynasties to marry members of other dynasties around the world. This could be used to ensure continued relations between two countries, maintain peace, strike a deal or secure finances.

Cromwell convinces King Henry to marry the German princess Anne of Cleves, arguing that it will ally England with Germany, who have also recently broken away from the Catholic church. Upon Anne's arrival, Henry is disgusted, decides he is disinterested and refuses to consummate the marriage. The marriage is a disaster, and Cromwell, having arranged the affair, takes the blame. His rivals take this as an opportunity and continue circulating unfounded rumours of Cromwell's treason. Cromwell is eventually arrested and imprisoned for treason. He is held for 48 days before being beheaded. Henry then marries his fifth wife, Katherine Howard.

The Mirror and the Light: context

Mantel's trilogy of books is based on the true story of Thomas Cromwell's life as King Henry VIII's chief adviser. The first two novels in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, detail Cromwell's meteoric rise to power from a place of low birth to a position as the king's greatest ally. The Mirror and the Light tracks Thomas Cromwell's downfall, beginning from the execution of Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) in 1536, and ending with Cromwell's own execution in 1540.

Henry VIII was King of England between 1509 and 1547. He was the second member of the House of Tudor to hold the throne. Henry is best known for his volatile temper and his six marriages, two of which ended in execution.

While King Henry plays a crucial role in the novel, the narrative is told entirely from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell was an English lawyer. He was the son of a blacksmith from Putney, but ran away from home and rose through the ranks of the English social order, eventually becoming chief adviser to Henry VIII between 1534 and 1540. He was renowned for his intelligence, calculated wit and talent for negotiation.

With the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry was free to once again search for a suitable heir to the English throne. He had grown infatuated with Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting from Wolf Hall. The pair got married, and Jane gave birth to a son. King Henry finally had his male heir, but it came at a severe cost. Jane's subsequent death from complications brought any celebration to an abrupt halt.

When Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (1515-1557), arrived from Germany, Henry was reportedly shocked that Anne didn't resemble the portrait he had seen of her. He blamed Cromwell for proposing the arrangement. The relationship between the king and his adviser had begun to sour.

The Mirror and the Light Anne of Cleves StudySmarterFig 3. This painting, depicting Anne of Cleves, was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543). It is likely the image that Henry VIII saw when he decided to marry her. Upon Anne's arrival, Henry claimed that she didn't resemble her painting at all, and refused to consummate the marriage.

Cromwell's enemies took the chance and spread the rumour that the chief adviser was attempting to dethrone the King. Eventually, Cromwell was tried for treason and, with no allies to defend him, was executed at Tower Hill in 1540.

The Mirror and the Light: play

Following its enormous success, The Mirror and the Light was adapted into a Broadway stage play. It was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and ran for over a month between September and November of 2021. The production followed on from two previous plays, the award-winning Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, which were based on the previous novels in Mantel's trilogy.

Mantel was consulted heavily in the making of the play, and co-authored the script with producer and actor Ben Miles (1966-, who plays Thomas Cromwell in the play. To Mantel, writing theatre scripts for her plays felt like a natural next step to her career as a novelist. She acknowledged how much she enjoyed the process in an interview with The Guardian.

“It surprised me, when we did the first plays, how comfortable I was in a rehearsal room... That awful self-consciousness that beset me all my life just left me. On reflection, I’ve always known it: I’m devoted to the theatre.1

With Mantel at the helm of production, and many accomplished actors breathing life into the roles, it's no surprise that the trilogy of plays created based on her novels were global successes, receiving critical acclaim and several prestigious awards.

The Mirror and the Light - Key takeaways

  • The Mirror and the Light is the third book in Mantel's 'Thomas Cromwell' trilogy, which tracks the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII's chief adviser.
  • The characters in the book are based on accurate historical figures, and the events that occur are all authentic to the time.
  • The Mirror and the Light tracks Thomas Cromwell's downfall, beginning with the execution of Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) in 1536 and ending with Cromwell's own execution in 1540.
  • In contrast to many other historical sources, Mantel treats Cromwell sympathetically, portraying him as intelligent, witty and ambitious but also forgiving and fair.
  • With the help of the Royal Shakespeare Company and co-author Ben Miles, Mantel has adapted the novel into a screenplay.

References

  1. Mark Lawson, The Guardian, Hilary Mantel on staging The Mirror and the Light: 'I should have been doing this all my life', 2021

Frequently Asked Questions about The Mirror and the Light

The title of the novel refers to Thomas Cromwell's praise of King Henry VIII as a model King. It also refers to the way a point of view can be changed depending on what angle you 'shine a light' on the situation. This is applicable to Mantel's work as she has looked at Thomas Cromwell's story from an alternative angle.

The Mirror and the Light was published on the 5th of March 2020.

Some of the main characters in The Mirror and the Light are Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Rafe Sadler.

The Mirror and the Light is largely historically accurate, but Mantel acknowledges the need to fill in historical gaps with her own fictional dialogue and imagination.

Hilary Mantel (1952-2022) was an English author and playwright, best known for her 'Thomas Cromwell' trilogy: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012)and The Mirror and the Light (2020).

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Where was Hilary Mantel born?

What was Hilary Mantel's first novel? 

The Mirror and the Light (2020) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but did not win. Is this true or false?

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