Hilary Mantel’s weighty tome of over 870 pages follows the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal and Viceregent of King Henry VIII from the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, in 1536 to the execution of Cromwell himself in 1540. In the intervening period Cromwell was the king’s closest advisor, powerful administrator and the instrument whereby Henry furthered his aiims. Thesse included enriching the crown through the dissolution of the monasteries, finding another wife and ensuring that England severed its relations with the Pope in Rome and the Cathoic church and established Henry as the head of the church in England.

However, this book is no mere outline of history as we learned it at school, it goes far and away beyond that. It takes us inside the heart and mind of the man who was – next to the king – the most powerful man of his time in England, the scourge of those who adhered to the old faith and an individual whose low birth proved no hindrance to his rise to nobility and wealth.

Using the language of the period to best advantage, Hilary Mantel shows us the workings of Cromwell’s mind, the way he achieved his aims, the discussions he had with friends and family, his conversations with the king, his way of life and the machinations he employed to attain his objectives. We are shown the way he and other wealthy families lived, what they ate, what they wore, the furniture and furnishings of their homes, and the minutiae of their daily lives as well as the grand schemes they devised and executed. But the book does not describe only the lives of the nobility, but also shows us in detail the way the ordinary folk lived, including Cromwell himself in his youth, as the son of a blacksmith in Putney.

Of course, executions were rife in those days, albeit hedged around with legal and legalistic reasoning. The prevalence of violent and cruel ways of dispatching enemies and anyone who did not toe the official line as regards Christian religious beliefs and practices was taken for granted. Special consideration was given to Anne Boleyn who was decapitated by an expert swordsman brought over from France rather than having to lay her head on the block and be subjected to having it hacked off by an executioner wielding an axe. Heretics were burned at the stake as a matter of course, and in cases involving common folk partial hanging and subsequent disembowelling were the method of choice. And everything was done in public before a cheering or roaring or weeping crowd. The visceral brutality of the times is enough to turn even the strongest stomach.

Almost inevitably, Cromwell made enemies in high places, and in time they managed to turn Henry against him. The reader shares with Cromwell the surprise attack by fellow-members of the King’s Council, the weeks spent imprisoned in the Tower of London, in relatively comfortable quarters at first, able to write letters, have his books brought to him (he wanted to start learning Hebrew), but for th last week or so he was moved to a smaller cell. That was the sign that his end was near. He was also granted the relatively merciful death of decapitation rather than disembowelment, despite his low birth.

Personally,I found Mantel’s oblique writing style rather difficult to swallow at first, but eventually I came to accept it and recognize it for its ability to reproduce the feeling of being in that time and place and to experience more fully life as it was lived then. This is the third volume in the series of Mantell’s books about this period, and in her Author’s Note at the end she states that it has taken her ten years to write. She also thanks the many historians and scholars who have helped her in verifying her facts, and it is to her credit that she has managed to complete this mammoth undertaking in a convincing and intellectually satisfying way.