Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Day 1280: The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors

Cover for The Last White RoseI’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.

Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.

Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.

Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.

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Day 1196: Lamentation

Cover for LamentationAlthough at the end of the last Matthew Shardlake novel, Matthew vowed to change his life, it is not substantially different in 1546, the beginning of the last novel in the series. He has vowed not to become involved in any more political cases, yet he takes one more for Queen Catherine, formerly Catherine Parr.

The religious situation in England is more fraught than it has been. As King Henry is the head of the church, he believes that all must follow his beliefs. Yet he vacillates between a more conservative view of the church and the reformist view, with resultant trials for heresy on both sides. Right now, the conservatives, headed by Bishop Gardiner, seem to be in ascendance, and having a reformist queen would be very inconvenient for them. Queen Catherine’s followers are fairly sure that if the conservatives prevail, she’ll be brutally discarded.

Unfortunately, Catherine has written a document, Lamentation of a Sinner, and not destroyed it as she was advised. Although it is not heretical, it distinctly shows her reformist views. More seriously, Henry would view her having written it secretly as disloyalty. Unfortunately, the document has been stolen from a locked coffer for which only the Queen has the key. Matthew agrees to try to recover the manuscript.

At the beginning of his investigation, Matthew encounters the murder of a printer, Greening. This man belongs to a group of religious radicals, and he is found clutching a page of the Queen’s manuscript in his hand. The investigation is further confused when Matthew learns that Greening was printing another book, an account by Anne Askew of her treatment before she was burned for heresy.

I think that this last novel is the best of the series. Despite its bulk, it is fast moving and atmospherically charged, reflecting everyone’s fears at the time. No one in Sansom’s books, it is true, seems to have any sense of humor, and perhaps that is partially what has bothered me about the series. In any case, by the end of the novel, Matthew has certainly set foot on a different path.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 651: Literary Wives! The Last Wife of Henry VIII

Cover for The Last Wife of Henry VIIIAgain, we have a group book review with Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review the same book about wives on the same day. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!


In considering The Last Wife of Henry VIII, I come smack up against the issue I’ve mentioned in the reviews of several historical novels based on the lives of actual people. That is, how an author can make the subject interesting while staying faithful to the events of the person’s life and to the person’s character.

In this novel, Erickson has a fairly clean slate to work with, because Catherine Parr’s life has not been covered as exhaustively as that of other Tudors. Yet it is one thing in historical fiction to invent the details of ordinary life and another to present readers with questionable events. The most obvious of these is to have Parr’s love affair with Thomas Seymour begin while she was still married to John Neville, when to all indications it began after Neville’s death, when she was left a relatively wealthy widow. And, might I add, the unlikelihood that they continued their physical relationship (if they had one) while she was married to Henry VIII. Not in that court and atmosphere, with that history, I’m guessing.

But this is aside from the point that with all this inventing, Erickson still fails to make Catherine Parr an interesting character or her story compelling—despite the fact that it probably was compelling. The actual Catherine was much more capable and influential than Erickson’s character, in fact.

Literary Wives logoWhat does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

First, for the Tudors wives were bargaining chips. The novel depicts Catherine as taking control of her own fate in some of her marriages, but only within limits. That is, in both instances if she hadn’t had another suitor, she would have had to marry the person chosen for her. Within the marriages, the limits to her spheres of action are chosen by her husband unless, as in her marriage to Seymour, she has her own money, which gives her leverage. In three of her marriages, her husband’s activities or relations with her husband’s relatives make her position insecure, so much so in her first marriage that she is left a poor and unprotected widow, at least according to Erickson. I would submit that in actuality, what left her insecure after the death of Henry VIII was more likely her marriage to Thomas Seymour than anything else.

In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by wife?

Catherine usually tries to do her duty by her husband, whether she loves him or not. The exception is her affair with Thomas Seymour while she was married to John Neville (which I don’t believe actually happened). In the terms of the novel, this is probably supposed to make it more romantic (it doesn’t), but it makes her character less consistent. I would say that for Parr, a wife is dutiful, affectionate, and tries to do the right thing. Her marriage to Henry VIII also shows her as compassionate, capable, and politically astute. Her marriage to Thomas Seymour, on the other hand, shows her as fatuous and besotted, unfortunately the reputation that has survived her. If I can sneak in a comment about stepmothers here, I believe her actual relationship with Henry’s children was much warmer than depicted in the novel.

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