The historic novel Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in a trilogy by Hilary Mantel aimed at portraying King Henry VIII's court, especially his powerful minister Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies follows Wolf Hall, which gives us an introduction to Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell came from a working-class family but managed to secure a position as the lead assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king's adviser. After Wolsey fell out of the king's favor because he failed to negotiate with the pope an annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Cromwell took his place and oversaw King Henry VIII's break from the Catholic Church and his subsequent divorce to Catherine of Aragon, as well as his marriage to Anne Boleyn ("Wolf Hall").
Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall leaves off. Anne Boleyn, just like Catherine of Aragon, has failed to produce a male heir, so she is also falling out of favor with the king. The novel opens with the king and Cromwell dining at Wolf Hall, the estate of Sir John Seymour. The king finds himself alone frequently with Jane Seymour and falling in love with her. What's more, rumors are spreading that Anne Boleyn has been unfaithful to the king, so he becomes determined to be rid of her and free to marry Jane Seymour ("Bring Up the Bodies").
To complicate things further, Cromwell helped Boleyn become established as queen, and Boleyn helped Cromwell rise in power, making the two tied together and in competition to retain their positions. In the end, it is Cromwell who uses the excuse of infidelity to have Boleyn executed for high treason ("Bring Up the Bodies"). While he did not fabricate the charges of infidelity, he saw to it that proof was found through an investigation, even using torture when possible, at the risk of losing not only his own position but his own life. Through the investigation, seven men were charged of adulterous relations with the queen, two of which were acquitted and released and one of which was her own brother George Boleyn ("Anne Boleyn: Charges of adultery, incest and treason"). The novel ends with Anne Boleyn's execution on charges of infidelity, incest, and high treason.
A sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies follows the notorious trial of the King Henry VIII's queen and her suitors for adultery, as well as the charge of treason against Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to King Henry, provides the perspective for this narrative, and emerges as less devilish than previously portrayed in other works, although he is certainly retributive and ruthless. In fact, the novel is less about Anne's betrayal of the king and her alleged adultery with seven men, including her own brother, than it is about Cromwell's settling of a score against those men who mocked the death of his master, Cardinal Wosley and, dressed like demons, carried him off. Therefore, the title not only refers to those brought from the tower of London to be disposed of, but also the bodies which arise to haunt him: his wife and his daughters, Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wosley. Consequently, Cromwell’s dealings with Anne are “chary, uncertain, and fraught with distrust." Nevertheless, once he has set his mind upon a course of revenge, he feels impelled to follow it through, exacting payment for every slight. This straightforward path does, however, have its consequences:
What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.
Ironically, Anne Boleyn proves herself the equal of Cromwell in strength of resolve. He observes, "One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him." However, Anne loses to the plain Jane Seymour, but
no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself.... Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now....
Although Anne "...knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these"; so, before she dies, she laughs with disdain at the accusations and just before her execution, she praises King Henry, and her death is quite poignant:
There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates [16th century word], and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
Indeed, it is an ending that removes the sentimentality of many historical accounts.