Bring Up the Bodies: An Inquisition

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Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
King Henry VIII of England; sixteenth-century portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

In this passage from Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn, the brother of Anne Boleyn, has been arrested. Henry VIII has turned against his sister, the queen. George here meets with Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. Francis Bryan is a leading courtier, caught between allegiances: he is a cousin of both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, who will be Henry’s third wife.

George Boleyn is well past thirty, but he still has the sheen we admire in the young, the sparkle and the clear gaze. It is hard to associate his pleasant person with the kind of bestial appetite of which his wife accuses him, and for a moment Thomas Cromwell looks at George and wonders if he can be guilty of any offenses, except a certain pride and elation. With the graces of his person and mind, he could have floated and hovered above the court and its sordid machinations, a man of refinement moving in his own sphere: commissioning translations of the ancient poets, and causing them to be published in exquisite editions. He could have ridden pretty white horses that curvet and bow in front of ladies. Unfortunately, he liked to quarrel and brag, intrigue and snub. As we find him now, in his light circular room in the Martin Tower, we find him pacing, hungry for conflict, we ask ourselves, does he know why he is here? Or is that surprise still to come?

“You are perhaps not much to blame,” he says, as he takes his seat: he, Thomas Cromwell. “Join me at this table,” he directs. “One hears of prisoners wearing a path through stone, but I do not believe it can really happen. It would take three hundred years perhaps.”

Boleyn says, “You are accusing me of some sort of collusion, concealment, concealing misconduct on my sister’s part, but this charge will not stand, because there was no misconduct.”

“No, my lord, that is not the charge.”

“Then what?”

“That is not what you are accused of. Sir Francis Bryan, who is a man of great imaginative capacities—”

“Bryan!” Boleyn looks horrified. “But you know he is an enemy of mine.” His words tumble over each other. “What has he said, how can you credit anything he says?”

“Sir Francis has explained it all to me. And I begin to see it. How a man may hardly know his sister, and meet her as a grown woman. She is like himself, yet not. She is familiar, yet piques his interest. One day his brotherly embrace is a little longer than usual. The business progresses from there. Perhaps neither party feels they are doing anything wrong, till some frontier is crossed. But I myself am far too lacking in imagination to imagine what that frontier could be.” He pauses. “Did it begin before her marriage, or after?”

Boleyn …

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