Books

War Lord – Bernard Cornwell

front cover of book

We were given this book by a friend because of where we live.

The Wirral is a little nub of land that sticks out of the country on the west and lies between two rivers, the Dee and the Mersey, which merge into the Irish Sea. It’s a tiny strip in the scheme of things, but there is a strong possibility that this was the site that created England.

Historians know that the Battle of Brunanburh took place, and they agree that it was the clincher that would either allow the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan to unite all of England or lose virtually everything to the Vikings and their allies. Some serious high stakes poker game.

What has been disputed, was where the battle actually occurred. There are multiple possible locations but the two top contenders are, somewhere near the Humber Estuary in the east, or, the Wirral, in the west. Namely around Bebington and Bromborough.

Surprisingly, having a name that is really, really similar to the original battle name doesn’t automatically win you the prize. There requires, apparently, in the absence of contemporary sources fully in accord, archaeological proof which is still to be conclusively produced.

But proof doesn’t need to stop works of historical fiction from putting their theories forward and this book does just that.

War Lord is the 13th and final book in ‘The Last Kingdom’ series. I hadn’t read any of the previous ones but I don’t think that is necessary. The author provides the context where necessary for events or relationships that have occurred in the past but there is no huge exposition and we crack on with the main story from the off.

It’s not the usual type of book that I would read but it turned out to be quite an interesting page turner. There are battles, political machinations, and familial discord which are described engagingly. I read the book in conjunction with Wikipedia because although the main character Uhtred is fictional here, most of the others are real and there is a good historical skeleton on which the drama hangs.

This book doesn’t have the same depth and brilliance of that other historical fiction series, the Wolf Hall trilogy but not many books are that good. It did keep me fairly entertained, however, and I zipped through it quite quickly. I don’t think the other books call to me but we have started watching the Netflix serialisation which is less effort than reading and rather good fun.

The ending, of course, which was the reason the book came our way, is pure speculation, but is set out quite reasonably. The battle of battles takes place on our Wirral peninsula and quite possibly, but maybe not, very close to where we live!

Books

The Mirror And The Light – Hilary Mantel

Book front cover of hardback.

Last night I finally finished the great tome that is The Mirror And The Light. It’s taken me ages. Not because it’s rubbish, far from it, but because of life getting in the way. But now, with relief and a little sadness, the trilogy is done.

Hilary Mantel herself says that ‘It was the hardest to write and it’s probably the most demanding for the reader’. That is definitely true. This last book has been more poetic and the viewpoint often leaves Cromwell’s head and swoops up to survey the wider geo-political landscape

It also dives back into his past more often, introspectively recollecting his earlier lives, in Putney, in Italy, in Antwerp, etc., drawing together a more solid shape of a man who previously seemed to have come out of nowhere. A blacksmith’s son from the backwaters of the Thames now the second most powerful man in the country.

The narrative commences where Bring Up The Bodies left off: the moment after Queen Anne’s execution, in the same way that one flowed from Wolf Hall. The books seem like nominal dividers at first, but all three end with an important beheading. Firstly Thomas More, then Anne Boleyn and finally in this one, the man himself.

That is not a spoiler, or maybe it is if you’re not up on your Tudor history? I’m a terrible one for looking up the main protagonists on t’internet, just to see how much their histories match up to the book. As with her previous two, Mantel makes sure the facts are all in the right places. They’re the skeleton around which she has built her hypotheses.

There is no record of the boy scholar Thomas More being harangued by the boy servant Thomas Cromwell, but it’s a sweet idea. And one that encapsulates the two men’s stark differences. Not only in their birth and paths through life, but it shows up More’s intransigence and Cromwell’s adaptiveness.

However, his remarkable abilities, to adapt and always to be one step ahead of his rivals, fail him in the end and he doesn’t foresee that his enemy’s enemies have become comrades for the purpose of his downfall.

He begins his incarceration in the Tower, initially in the same rooms as Anne Boleyn when she was about to be coronated and when she was about to be beheaded. It was Cromwell who, seven years before had had them rebuilt in time for Anne. It was Cromwell, who had had the eyes of the goddesses changed from brown to blue when Jane stayed here before her wedding to the King. A quote comes back to haunt us from the second book, where Anne warns Cromwell that ‘Those who are made can be unmade’.

The ghosts, that have occasionally accompanied him, have multiplied, especially when he is then moved to the Bell Tower, still a grand room, but more spartan, and used for high-ranking prisoners. George Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and others, all flit around for his last few days on Earth.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, much more so than current affairs, as for me, with history, the chaos has passed and can be explored less emotionally. But this trilogy has brought alive a period of time to such a degree where my emotions were engaged and I was rapt by the characters and the chaos and the machinations and the politics even though I knew how it would all play out.

The ending, though macabre, is poetry, and resurrects the words spoken by Walter, his father at the beginning of Wolf Hall. There is some evidence that Cromwell’s beheading was botched and took several blows, and Mantel uses this possibility to extend his voice for a few painful seconds more until he breathes his last and I closed the book for a final time.

Books

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Front cover of the paperback version of Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I thought I would start reviewing the books that I read. Partly so that I read them with a little more thought, and partly so that I read them. Because for some reason, although I love books, I don’t sit down with one very much at all.

So we kick off with the middle book in a trilogy, which is a little arse about tit I grant you, but it is the latest book I’ve read and not everything can be planned so neatly.

Bring up the Bodies begins in the middle of Anne Boleyn’s brief time as Queen. Thomas Cromwell has risen up from being a Michael Cohen style fixer and is now fully established as Henry VIII’s right hand man and so far Anne has produced just one more daughter for the Crown. It carries Cromwell’s story on from Mantel’s first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, which leaves us with Henry and Anne’s marriage and Thomas More’s execution.

We know how it ends of course, for Anne, but there is a genius in taking a piece of history well trod and documented, and bringing it to life in a whole new way. Mantel keeps the narrative in the present tense, so pushing that idea of ‘History’ back, and makes the language modern enough for our ears. On top of that, the narrator always sits just behind and occasionally inside, Cromwell’s head, so you have access to only one perspective. But that perspective happens to have an increasing reach and knowledge over the dominions of England, especially the lands and lives of the nobility. So, for the reader, this vantage point reveals a lot.

Now it is highly probable that Mantel has taken artistic licence to make this Cromwell more sympathetic than he really was. A reader will be more willingly pulled along if they’re invested in the main protagonist. There are moments, like when he looks at the first queen, Katherine, in her ‘prison’. They’re roughly the same age but he notes that ‘life is harsher for women’, especially if they ‘have been blessed with many children and seen them die’. This level of empathy may occasionally tip the suspension of disbelief a little for some but it didn’t bother me and reminded me that even Himmler loved his family.

Wolf Hall was lambasted by some historians for painting More in a detestable manner and Cromwell so positively1. But, these books from Cromwell’s point of view and they are novels after all and not a history.2 Even bona fide histories will create a ‘narrative’ and make suppositions where there are blank spaces in the facts.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes across as phlegmatic and Machiavellian – at one point it says he’s read The Prince, which in his estimation could be improved upon! He is (in his eyes necessarily) ruthless but not bloodthirsty, highly intelligent, generous and knows when to take his revenge. This book brings his character to the peak of his powers and the height of his wealth with the dissolution of the monasteries filling the coffers of the Crown.

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein
Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1533-1534) – ‘When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?’

I do like history. My A-level English History covered the Tudors and I wish I’d had these books around then. I know this is a fiction but the level of research that Mantel has done to keep on top of who’s who and what their relationships are and who they’ve slept with etc. is excellent. It brings it alive in a way that would have made me want to explore the real stories more.

If history is not your bag, you may find it a little unwieldy. There are a lot of characters. Mantel does give a helpful list at the beginning but it can still get confusing sometimes. However, I wouldn’t let the details bog you down. Just sit back and let it carry you along.


1 In defence of Thomas More https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/jan/29/wolf-hall-wrong-thomas-more-was-funny-feminist

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/31/students-take-hilary-mantels-tudor-novels-as-fact-hay-festival