Blog, Cromwell Trilogy, Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light

TM&tL: Part I, Chapter 1, ‘Wreckage (I)’

This post also includes notes to some of the front material, too.

Front Material

François Villon (xxi): Villon was a late medieval French poet and criminal (take that, Ezra Pound).

Crime #1: Part of a scuffle in which the other guy died. Villon was banished, but ultimately allowed to return when Charles VII of France was convinced that the dead guy forgave Villon before he died.

Crime #2: Alleged ringleader of a team that broke into a chapel and stole 500 gold crowns.

Crime #3: More theft, which led to his being condemned to hang. (The sentence was commuted to banishment, and this time Villon was so good at it that no one ever saw him again.)

Mantel quotes the first two lines of Villon’s poem, ‘Ballade des pendus.’ In English, it’s Ballad of the Hanged. It’s thought to have been written while Villon was in prison waiting to meet the hangman, which is a good story, but not one any of us can hang our hat on.

Here it is in an English translation:

Human brothers who live after us,

Do not have (your) hearts hardened against us,

For, if you take pity on us poor (fellows),

God will sooner have mercy on you.

You see us tied here, five, six:

As for the flesh, that we nurtured too much,

It is already long-time consumed, and rotting,

And we, the bones, become ashes and powder.

Of our pain let no one make fun,

But pray God that he wills to absolve us all!

If we call you brothers, you must not

Have scorn for it, although we were killed

By justice. Nevertheless, you know

That all men do not have staid common sense.

Forgive us, since we are shivering,

Toward the son of the Virgin Mary,

That his grace may not run dry for us,

Preserving us from the infernal wrath.

We are dead, let no soul harry us,

But pray God that he wills to absolve us all!

Rain has unsmirched and washed us

And the sun has dried and blackened us;

Magpies and crows have carved out our eyes,

And torn off our beards and eyebrows.

We never sit for a moment;

Now here, then there, as the wind changes,

at its pleasure, without cease (it) tosses us,

More pecked by birds than thimbles.

Do not then be of our brotherhood,

But pray God that he wills to absolve us all!

Prince Jesus, who has command of all,

Prevent Hell from having lordship over us:

With him, we have nothing to perform nor to trade.

Men, there is no mockery here,

But pray God that he wills to absolve us all.

‘Ballade des pendus,’ by François Villon. Published posthumously 1489.

It makes sense that someone who enjoyed a life of crime would want history to look back on them with compassion, if not kindness. And that’s certainly something that fits well with Thomas Cromwell. Finally, it’s probably just a good rule in general: our job isn’t to judge, but to try as much as we can to understand.

(Fun side-note: Truman Capote also used the first two lines of ‘Ballade des pendus’ in the front material of In Cold Blood.)

Noah’s Flood, a miracle play (xxi): It might be useful to start with what a miracle play is. They’re not as common today, and, by the time we get to Cromwell, they are about to be on their way out.

Mystery plays start out, in the 400s, as ‘living tableaux.’ People would pose as figures from Biblical stories, and other people would sing/chant a song that relates to the tableaux. Literacy rates are fairly low from the early days of their evolution up through the Tudor era (and then a little beyond); it was not uncommon for your priest to be illiterate, and he might very well preach to you from a book with pictures of scenes from the Bible rather than from the text of the Bible itself.

As these living tableaux develop over the years, they add action, and lines, and we get more of a ‘play’ format that you and I would recognize. (But the acting would be entirely foreign to us; none of this method acting or real tears. This is ceremonial magic, in a sense.)

When we reach the early 1200s, the Church is growing more and more suspicious of these miracle plays. Pope Innocent III (and quick side story about that guy: When he died, he is alleged to have been sent to Purgatory. He appeared to the Flemish nun Lutgardis of Aywières engulfed in flames and told her there were three reasons he was in Purgatory: He did not bow his head in humility during the reciting of the Nicene Creed, and the other two reasons have been lost to us) banned clergy from participating — possibly because ‘seditious ideas’ (i.e., empowering citizens) were transmitted via these plays, and Biblical interpretations that the Church could not control. Elizabeth I banned miracle plays entirely because she felt they encouraged ‘popery.’

Noah’s Flood is part of the Chester Cycle that originated in Chester, England, in the early 1400s. We don’t know any of the writers of any of the miracle plays; authorship wasn’t an idea that had a lot of traction. As with most miracle plays, the Chester Cycle started with creation and ends with destruction and Noah’s Flood is one of the plays that tells that story.

You can read Noah’s Flood here: https://earlybritishlit.pressbooks.com/chapter/the-chester-plays-noahs-flood/

Wreckage (I) London, May 1536

Wreckage (I) London, May 1536 (3): I think it’s useful to take a moment and just recap what we’ve been through, as readers and as citizens of Tudor-era England, from the death of Arthur in 1502 until 1 second after Anne’s head is removed:

  • Death of Arthur Tudor, 1502
  • Death of Henry VII, 1509
  • The scandalous re-marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Henry, 1509
  • The scandalous annulment of the scandalous re-marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Henry, 1533
  • The scandalous break from Rome, 1533
  • The scandalous second marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn, 1533
  • The death of Katherine of Aragon, 1536
  • A scandalous trial of a queen of England, 1536
  • A scandalous series of executions, including the first ever of a queen of England, 1536

That’s a lot of chaos in 34 years. (Though concentrated into several terrifying clumps.)

Once the queen’s head is severed (3): Another thing that is useful, I think, to keep in mind, is that a woman was just publicly beheaded for infidelity and the people who watched it all think of themselves as ‘modern.’ They believe that they are smarter, more just, better philosophically situated, than their ancestors.

I think this is useful because we look back at them and think that decapitation is kind of barbaric. And we think we’re modern. We believe we are smarter, more just, better philosophically situated, than our ancestors.

Over the narrow carcass (3): This prepositional phrase is similar to ‘Across the Narrow Sea’ — the first chapter of Wolf Hall. Both of these narrow crossings mark dramatic changes for Cromwell.

These people are incredible, he says to the Frenchman. No coffin, when they had days to prepare? (4)

We all — well, most of us, not Brandon – regret that it had to come to this. (5): I’m interested in how Cromwell separates himself from what just happened, as if he were a casual observer giving pointers to something that was out of his control.

Recently his son was sent off to learn the art of public speaking, and the result is that, though he still lacks the command that makes for rhetorical sweep, he has become more interested in words if you take them one by one. (5): This ungenerous portrait of Gregory: do Gregory’s actions match the dim view Cromwell/the narrator have of him? Is he dull, or is he quietly smart, absorbing everything that comes his way? I wonder if, because Gregory’s intelligence isn’t in service of himself, or a way to stay ahead of any competition, Cromwell misreads it.

But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it? (6): It’s a clever line — but truth isn’t what got us to the beheading, so why would one think one has free rein to speak it at a beheading, let alone anywhere else. What value does truth have in the novel? (For instance, a character, described as a bad poet, is called ‘Tom Truth.’)

But his boy has kept his face arranged (6): From Wolf Hall, Part 4, Chapter 1, ‘Arrange Your Face’

She may be dead, he thinks, but she can still ruin me. (7): How much is Anne responsible for his downfall? How much are his actions around Anne’s downfall — alienating the Old Families, for instance — responsible? Does he miss dangers that present themselves because he’s misidentified the enemy?

but he believes long hours never killed anybody (7): Maybe not, but it’s what you do with those long hours that might.

Outside, the red kites are skimming over the Tower walls. (13): Birds represent hunting, scavenging, and instinct.

Rafe looks uneasy. ‘She thinks that Anne was a protector of the gospel and that cause is, as you know, near my wife’s heart.’

‘Oh, well, yes,’ he says. ‘But I can protect it better.’ (14): How? How has Cromwell protected the gospel at all? How many evangelicals have died under Cromwell’s watch? What does it mean to Cromwell to ‘protect the gospel’?

‘Anne was not pitiful,’ he says. ‘Have you not told Helen how she threatened me with beheading? And she was planning, as we now know, to cut short the life of the king himself.’ (14): I guess two questions here:

  1. Did Anne actually/actively do these things?
  2. If not, does Cromwell believe that she was going to do those things? Does he believe his own propaganda? Or is it useful to continue this story for right now because he needs to remind everyone that Anne was a danger to the kingdom, and if anyone pauses to pity her, they may start to question how she ended up sans tête?

‘They are waiting for you to keep your promise.’ (17): We’ll cover the ‘they’s as they come up, but these are the Old Families — families knocked out of the line of succession by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) during the War of the Roses.

Nicholas Carew (17): Nick is a spokesperson for the Yorkist claimants to the throne, the Old Families. He’s a courtier in Henry’s court. He was essentially raised with Henry; they were educated together and incredibly close. (Wolsey was not terribly fond of how close Carew was to Henry.) The Carew line had no hopes in succession; but, helping families that did have hope could prove lucrative. Carew, the Poles, and the Courtenays are all ‘papists.’

He sees himself as the mirror of chivalry (18): This is Nicholas Carew. I’m tracking how many times mirrors and light make an appearance.

‘What have I , but what my king gives me? Who am I, but who he has made me? All my trust is in him.’ (20): Echoes of a line of George Cavendish’s in Wolf Hall. (Cavendish was Wolsey’s usher and, later, his biographer.) There is a rehashed argument about the feasibility of of a war many wanted, and Cromwell voted against. Sir William Gascoigne, Wolsey’s treasurer at the time, Cromwell does not like him and we don’t see him any more after this scene in Wolf Hall.

‘If you like the king so much, go and work for him. Or do you already?’ 

The cardinal clears his throat softly. ‘We all do,’ Cavendish says, and the cardinal says, ‘Thomas, we are the works of his hand.’

Wolf Hall, p. 44

It is 20 May, 1536. (21): For those who want a countdown clock, Cromwell has 4 years and 2 months left of life at the end of Part 1, Chapter 1.

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