THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT. The final part of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy came out just before the pandemic: a year later Graham Buchan looks back on the whole sequence.

Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror & the Light 
Hilary Mantel
4th Estate.

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell isn’t just great historical fiction, it is also great literature. Obviously her grasp of history is comprehensive and deep. Not just the facts of who did what and when, but also the copious details of the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the time, details of how business was transacted and how information was conveyed. But even greater is her ability to show how the huge shifts in historical forces were reflected in the detailed thoughts and actions of individual people, and how historical figures themselves had a strong sense of their own history. Time and again she mines Cromwell’s memory – of his brutal childhood, his adventures in Italy and Antwerp – to generate a convincing psychological portrait of her protagonist.

England at this time was not a great power. France and The Holy Roman Empire, under Charles V of Spain, were formidable rivals. North of the border were the troublesome Scots. A country’s security and prosperity was forged, hopefully, through royal marriage, a delicate balancing of forces. Mantel is exceptionally clear-eyed about how this way of doing things impacts on the lives of women. And what a king longed for more than anything was a male heir. What happened in the bedroom was as important as dealings with ambassadors.

At the same time the all-embracing influence of the Roman Catholic Church was being challenged by new Lutheran thinking. The author deftly brings Tyndale, Erasmus and Machiavelli into the fabric of her story.

We are constantly reminded that this was a time when early or unexpected death, through disease or violence, was the norm, and Mantel brings us close to the awful details of what that could be like: the sudden deaths of loved ones are described with tenderness and compassion; the hangings, beheadings and burnings are rendered with grisly precision. “He saw how, as she received the bundle, the woman shuddered from the nape of her neck to her feet. She held it fast though, and a head is heavier than you expect.”

Given the extent to which Mantel’s narrative is advanced through conversation, the dialogue she invents strikes exactly the right note. Does anyone really know how people spoke in the sixteenth century? I certainly do not, but the way conversation is rendered here, whether formal, informal, bawdy or humorous, seems entirely plausible. It is a pleasure to listen to these people speak.

All of which might sound merely commendable were it not for the sheer beauty of the writing. On every page there are phrases, sentences or paragraphs bursting with vividness and imagination. Here, almost at random, is a sample from The Mirror & The Light:

   ...when he sits in the council  chamber, words fall about  him in a drizzling haze, 
and he finds himself wrapped  in the climate of his childhood. He is  a monk who
descends the night stair, still  wrapped in dreams, so that the s huffling feet of his
brethren are transformed  to the whisper of leaves in  the forests of  infancy: and 
like a hidden creature stirring from a leaf-bed, his mind stirs and turns,on a restless
circuit. He tries to tether it  (to now, this time, this place)  but it will roam: scenting 
the  staleness of  soiled straw  and stagnant water, the  hot grease of the  smithy, 
horse sweat, leather, grass,  yeast, tallow, honey, wet dog, spilled beer, the lanes
and wharves of his childhood.”

These three books tell a huge story of power, capriciousness, loyalty and betrayal – all spread over more than 2000 pages. This is a staggering achievement