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 begins to tremble. It is shock; he can hardly speak. “I refuse to answer this.”

“My lord, I am accustomed to dealing with those who refuse to answer.”

“Are you threatening me with the rack?”

“Well, now, I didn’t rack Thomas More, did I? I sat in a room with him. A room here at the Tower, such as the one you occupy. I listened to the murmurs within his silence. Construction can be put on silence. It will be.”

George says, “Henry killed his father’s councillors. He killed the Duke of Buckingham. He destroyed the cardinal and harried him to his death, and struck the head off one of Europe’s great scholars. Now he plans to kill his wife and her family and Norris who has been his closest friend. What makes you think it will be different with you, that are not the equal of any of these men?”

Cromwell says, “It ill becomes anyone of your family to evoke the cardinal’s name. Or Thomas More’s, for that matter. Your lady sister burned for vengeance. She would say to me, what, Thomas More, is he not dead yet?”

“Who began this slander against me? It is not Francis Bryan, surely. Is it my wife? Yes. I should have known.”

“You make the assumption. I do not confirm it. You must have a guilty conscience toward her, if you think she has such cause to hate you.”

“And will you believe something so monstrous?” George begs. “On the word of one woman?”

“There are other women who have been recipients of your gallantry. I will not bring them before a court if I can help it, I can do that much to protect them. You have always regarded women as disposable, my lord, and you cannot complain if in the end they think the same of you.”


“So am I to be put on trial for gallantry? Yes, they are jealous of me, you are all jealous, I have had some success with women.”

“You still call it success? You must think again.”

“I never heard it was a crime. To spend time with a willing lover.”

“You had better not say that in your defense. If one of your lovers is your sister…the court will find it, what shall we say…pert and bold. Lacking in gravity. What would save you now—I mean, what might preserve your life—would be a full statement of all you know about your sister’s dealings with other men. Some suggest there are liaisons that would put yours in the shade, unnatural though it may be.”

“You are a Christian man, and you ask me this? To give evidence to kill my sister?”

He opens his hands. “I ask nothing. I only point out what some would see as the way forward. I do not know whether the king would incline to mercy. He might let you live abroad or he might grant you mercy as to the manner of your death. Or not. The traitor’s penalty, as you know, is fearful and public; he dies in great pain and humiliation; I see you do know, you have witnessed it.”

Boleyn folds into himself: narrowing himself, arms across his body, as if to protect his guts from the butcher’s knife, and he slumps to a stool; Cromwell thinks, you should have done that before, I told you to sit, you see how without touching you I have made you sit? He tells him softly, “You profess the gospel, my lord, and that you are saved. But your actions do not suggest you are saved.”

“You may take your thumbprints off my soul,” George says. “I discuss these matters with my chaplains.”