If Henry VIII had died in 1536, after the death of Anne Boleyn and before marrying his third wife Jane Seymour, England would have remained a Catholic country. Or would it? Perhaps there would have been a civil war in the 1540s instead of the 1640s, with England convulsed by the violet religious conflicts that raged across Europe at the Reformation.
These imponderables came to mind as I was reading The Mirror And The Light, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was for many years a close advisor to Henry VIII and one of the driving forces behind the English Reformation.
The series has caused controversy in some quarters. Catholics have questioned Mantel’s strongly negative presentation of Thomas More, the scholar and Lord Chancellor of England. He was eventually executed in 1535 after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, a vow which all clergy and public officials were required to take which affirmed Henry as the head of the English church, and denied the Pope’s authority (a version of it was still required of MPs and students at Oxford well into the nineteenth century).
As well as her attitude to More and the other early English martyrs like Bishop John Fisher, Mantel is clearly sympathetic to the Reformation in general. I’d also say that she doesn’t quite capture the depth and texture of English Christianity at the time. For a book about the same period and the same issues which does manage this, I often recommend to people HFM Prescott’s The Man On A Donkey.
That said, Mantel is undoubtedly a very gifted novelist.
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