As with Wolf Hall, some prior knowledge of Henry VIII and his court is very helpful if not prerequisite to fully appreciate the book. This volume tells the story of Cromwell's work to rid the King of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has become not only a political albatross round his royal neck but has also failed to bear him a male heir to the throne. I love the way Mantel reveals that Henry's already got his eye on Anne's successor (Jane Seymour) via a whispered conversation between Cromwell and Ambassador Chapuys, formerly a confidante of Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.
Light dawns in the ambassador's eye. "Ahh." He lets out a long breath. He grasps, in that single moment, why Henry has forced him to make a public reverence to a queen whom he no longer wants. Henry is tenacious of his will, he is stubborn. Now he has carried his point: his second marriage has been acknowledged. Now, if he likes, he can let it go. Chapuys draws his garments together, as if he feels a draught from the future. He whispers, "Must I really dine with her brother?"Jane Rochford is also unhappily married, but to Anne Boleyn's brother, George. When Cromwell is sniffing around for a reason to get rid of the Queen, he finds a very willing accomplice in Lady Rochford, who is conveniently serving as one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. For her part, Lady Rochford sees the chance to kill two birds with one stone, and she avows that Anne and George have an incestuous relationship. Her options are, after all, given her station in life, rather limited.
"Oh yes. You will find him a charming host. After all," he raises a hand to hide his smile, "has he not just enjoyed a triumph? He and his whole family?"
Chapuys huddles closer."I am shocked to see her. I have not seen her so close. She looks like a thin old woman. Was that Mistress Seymour, in the halcyon sleeves? She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?"
"He thinks she's stupid. He finds it restful."
For what can a woman like Jane Rochford do when circumstances are against her? A widow well-provided can cut a figure in the world. A merchant's wife can with diligence and prudence take business matters into her hands, and squirrel away a store of gold. A labouring woman ill-used by a husband can enlist robust friends, who will stand outside her house all night and bang pans, till the unshaven churl tips out in his shirt to chase them off, and they pull up his shirt and mock his member. But a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master who spares the whip.Cromwell doesn't stop there. He arrests a court musician and three other courtiers. In all, five men were tried and ultimately executed, although evidence suggests that all were framed. Cromwell, however, was clever enough to choose men who had the appearance of impropriety.
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.As the years pass, and the byzantine plots in Henry's court never cease, Cromwell finally shows some signs of strain. He's growing weary, or perhaps just hard.
He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.