Discussion Questions – ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel


  1. The novel starts off with a description of hawks soaring in the sky and swooping in to slaughter their prey. In the same manner, the novel closes off with an image of a fox attacking a hen coop. What is the significance of these animals and what do they symbolise?
'Bring Up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel (2012).
‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel (2012).

Hawks tend to symbolise awareness, intelligence and a regal bearing. Possibly this is a sense of what is to come – the intelligent and ambitious Anne Boleyn losing awareness of her position as queen and what it relies on (Henry VIII’s love) and ending up being beheaded on the orders of her husband, the king. In the case of the fall of Anne Boleyn the fox represents Cromwell, and the hens are Anne and her faction who are brought down. However, this could also foreshadow what is to come for Cromwell when he becomes one of the hens, along with the rest of the reformist party, and they are attacked by the foxes (the conservative faction).

2. How has Cromwell’s upbringing influenced him to become the shrewd and ambitious man that he is? What is the significance of Cromwell refusing to adopt the coat of arms belonging to a noble Cromwell family even as he widens the chasm between his father and himself? How does Cromwell view family and how is it different from his own experience growing up?

I think the fact that Cromwell had such a difficult relationship with his father encourages him to get away and prove himself. He wants to be a better person than his father. I think this difficult relationship also enhances Cromwell’s ambition and desire for power – he wants to feel the power that he didn’t have when at the mercy of his father. Cromwell doesn’t want to be a part of the inherited nobility – his religious beliefs encourage the rise of self-made men, and promoting them on the basis of their abilities and not their wealth or title. I think Cromwell doesn’t want his own wife and children to experience the family life he had when he was younger – he tries very hard not to exhibit the same characteristics as his father did, and tries to create a happier home.

3. How is King Henry VIII described in the novel? Is he self-serving, or does he truly believe in the validity of his actions? Does he come over as a sympathetic character?

I think that Henry believes in the validity of his actions at the time that he commits them, but I think that he can act rashly and without thought at times, and later comes to regret his actions. I don’t think that he regretted his supremacy over the church, because it gave him increased wealth and power, but I think sometimes his actions with people are impulsive. I think he comes over as a sympathetic character more in ‘Wolf Hall’ than he does in ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, as he helps Wolsey when he can and seems to regret his fall from power. However, in ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ he seems to be more callous in pulling away from Anne Boleyn, when he did so much to marry her in the first place – he blames his actions on others.

4. Katherine is accused by Cromwell of causing the split within the church, and of endangering her daughter Mary, by her stubborn resistance to the King’s wishes. Do you view Katherine as a relentless and self-indulgent queen or is she noble for staying true to her beliefs?

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

I think Katherine is a bit of both because she sees her position as Queen of England as God-given and her right, but when she knew Henry was determined to beget a legitimate heir by another wife, it would probably have been more sensible for her to step aside, which wouldn’t have impugned her daughter’s rights if she had voluntarily entered a nunnery – Mary would still have been a Princess and in the line of succession after any legitimate sons born to the king. She would still have been queen had she stepped aside, and there was a precedent in Jean de Valois of France. Perhaps then Anne Boleyn would have given Henry a son if she hadn’t had to wait so long to marry him.

5. Cromwell believes that England “will keep spiralling backwards into the dirty past” unless blunders are forgotten and old quarrels ended. How does this belief influence his actions in trying to build a new England? Does the king help or hinder him in this urge for renewal? How far are Cromwell’s actions unselfish, and how far are they self-serving?

I think that Cromwell believes England needs to move out of the past (Catholicism) and into the future (Protestantism). Because he’s not a part of the old nobility, and rose from nothing, he can see the corruption and power held by the nobility, who aren’t always up to the tasks given them. I think he wants people to be promoted based on their talents, not on their title or their wealth. I think that Henry goes along with some of Cromwell’s ideas, like the dissolution of the monasteries, because it benefits him (in this case financially). I think Cromwell gets a taste for power, but he also truly believes in what he is promoting for England – he can see that corruption is rife and things need to change.

6. King Henry had fawned over all three women (Katherine, Anne, Jane) at one point in time. His past actions indicate that he loved his former wives, yet each affair proves temporary. How does Henry view love? Why do the women in the novel endeavour to wear the “poisoned ring”?

I think Henry doesn’t really love – he sees women as vassals to produce children, and satisfy his sexual needs. However, I think he cannot really love, but he needs to feel loved. I believe Katherine did love him, Jane made him feel loved even if she didn’t love him, and Anne wanted the power and position, and possibly did love Henry early on, as he was handsome and kind to her. Katherine, Anne and Jane all want to marry Henry for the power and position, but after Anne’s fate, Jane must have been aware how dangerous it was to marry the king. Katherine and Anne didn’t know how far Henry would go and Katherine in fact never lived to see Anne’s execution.

7. There is enormous power in a woman’s gaze. How do the women in this novel utilize their feminine wiles to their advantage? What effect do they have on men subject to their lure, and what does this tell you about women’s power over their male counterparts?

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

Anne Boleyn was notorious for utilising her female advantages in attracting Henry VIII – contemporary sources say that she used her dark eyes to great advantage and stood out as she adhered to French ways from her time in France. Anne seems alluring to many male courtiers such as Henry Norris and Francis Weston, and even the lowly Mark Smeaton, but it is used against her in the end. Women have power because the lure of sex and love can often make men forget themselves, and the king is no different. Jane Seymour uses her different female allure to distance herself from Anne Boleyn, and portray herself as a viable alternative. It’s about perception rather than the actuality –if one man finds a woman attractive, others will follow his lead, especially if that man is a king with so much power.

8. Birth and parenting are a major conceit throughout the novel. As “nails give birth to nails,” are children the product of their parents? Consider the parent-child relationships in the novel. What influence do parents have on their progeny?

I think children are generally the product of their parents, unless their parents are so unremarkable that they leave little trace behind. In this, Edward VI does not really resemble his mother, Jane Seymour. From all accounts, she tended towards conservatism, whereas Edward was brought up to be a staunch protestant. Elizabeth is affected by what she learns of her mother and Anne Boleyn’s fate probably has some influence on Elizabeth’s decision not to marry years later. Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary are probably the most influential mother-daughter relationship. Mary is old enough to understand and to make her own mind up when her mother is put aside, so it has a larger influence on her. Mary inherits her mother’s stubbornness in resisting Henry VIII and her Catholicism, which will influence England’s future.

9. When the King is thought to be dead after a jousting accident, there is a sudden rush to claim the crown. Are the players idealists, attempting to realize their political and religious ideals for England, or are they simply interested in getting power for themselves?

I think most people just want power for themselves – that is generally why people aspire to get to court, because that is the centre of power. People intend to enforce their ideas once they get into power, but power is the real ambition. The court generally is split into two parties at this point – one supporting Princess Mary and the conservative agenda, and one supporting Princess Elizabeth and the reformist agenda. Both will enforce their ideas once in power, but generally they want power, and will side with whichever side enables them to get that power. Cromwell, for instance, switches to the conservative side in order to sustain his own power in bringing down Anne Boleyn, though he remains a reformer at heart.

10. Anne Boleyn is accused of committing adultery and even incest. Could there be any truth in these accusations, or are they complete fabrications by her enemies? How does she change once she realises she is in danger?

I don’t think that Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery or incest. I think that she was a little indiscreet in her dealing with male courtiers i.e. the dead men’s shoes comment made to Henry Norris springs to mind. I think they were fabricated by Cromwell on the king’s wishes to enable him to be rid of her, and discredit her and her daughter. I think it was also for the king to save face – it doesn’t imperil the divorce or the break with Rome which he did in order to marry Anne in the first place. I think she changes once she realises she’s in danger because it’s a self-preservation instinct. Even though she knows that Henry wants rid of her, she still has to do what she can to minimise the damage to others, especially her daughter, Elizabeth. I think she also becomes panicky and begins to implicate others, in contrast to what she really wants to do and protect them.

11. Cromwell seems very protective of Wyatt and saves him from death, even though he is widely suspected of being one of Anne’s lovers. Why does Cromwell feel such a strong need to defend him when he vehemently accuses others of being the Queen’s bedfellows? What sets Wyatt apart from the other men portrayed in the novel? What have Wyatt and Cromwell in common?

Thomas Wyatt Sketch by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Wyatt Sketch by Hans Holbein.

I think that Cromwell sees Wyatt as a kindred soul, as they share the same religious convictions. Wyatt also poses no threat to Cromwell – George Boleyn would have pushed for the reinstatement of his sister, and William Brereton threatened Cromwell’s interests in Wales. I also think that Cromwell feels a bit sorry for Wyatt, having been in love with Anne Boleyn and having to watch her ensnare Henry instead. I also think that Cromwell in part wants to make Wyatt beholden to him – by sparing him, Wyatt owes Cromwell a debt which no doubt Cromwell would cash in on.

12. Does the novel make you reconsider your view of the Tudors?

Having studied the Tudors in depth for several years, this doesn’t really change my view of the Tudors, though it does change my view of Cromwell, because he is always portrayed as completely mercenary and unforgiving, but we see a softer side to him here. Anne Boleyn is often seen as a seductress and witchy character, but we see a more vulnerable side to her in her fear, and her desperation really comes through. She is often seen as deserving of her fate, but here you really get the sense of her innocence. I think Jane Seymour comes across as more mercenary here, and her family, as she is often seen as shy and retiring, but we see a backbone of steel.

13. The story concludes with Cromwell’s claim that there are no endings, only beginnings. The country now has a new queen and a new leading family. What does this mean for England’s future? What do you think Cromwell’s role will be in the new order?

With every ending is a new beginning, so I think something has to end for something else to begin, but again the Howards were never really beaten as they came back again and again in the reigns of Henry’s children. The changing of queens under Henry VIII usually heralded a change in religion – Katherine of Aragon and her followers were Catholic, Anne Boleyn Protestant, Jane Seymour Catholic, Anne of Cleves Protestant, Katherine Howard Catholic and Katherine Parr Protestant. Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour meant that the conservatives were in the ascendant. I think Cromwell needs to push for what he believes in, and try and pull down those who would hurt him or the king.

14. The execution of Anne Boleyn is one of the most frightening moments in English history. Anne’s last words are scripted to appease the King. What do you think would have been Anne’s last words had there not been any consequences?

I think that Anne would have liked to tell people why she was really dying, though I’m sure they guessed – that Henry VIII no longer loved her because she couldn’t give him a son, and he wanted to marry Jane Seymour instead. I think there were just too many consequences for her to speak her mind. Perhaps she hoped that, if she went to her death quietly, Henry might not take his pain and anger out on their daughter, Elizabeth, as he did with Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary. Anne knew that she would be beyond danger, but not so for those she was leaving behind.

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