Truth Cast into Symbol and Metaphor: Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light


There are three main criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels. The first, that her style is confusing; people puzzle about who ‘he’ is. The second is that the prose is dense, overladen; sections might need rereading to unpick their full meaning. The third, more academic charge, is against ‘faction’; however good the research, we cannot know what Thomas Cromwell thought, so what is the point? Historian Niall Fergusson suggested that this kind of presumption contaminates ‘historical understanding’.1

The confusion of ‘he’ is only a brief problem of acclimatisation. Mantel uses ‘he’ to reaffirm to the reader that the viewpoint is not ‘I’; though we have ‘notional access to the inside of [Cromwell’s] head… there is always a sense that something may be held back.’2 The other criticisms are more cogent, and yet I absolutely love Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. This is best explained, I think, by examining a scene that has no point unless I ‘believe’ in the way her Thomas thinks.

In The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate UK/Henry Holt US, 2020), Cromwell visits Shaftesbury Abbey as a ‘private gentleman’ to see the nun Dorothea, Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter. They meet in a narrow room with a view of a wall; nothing is seen of the Abbey’s opulence. Cromwell offers gifts, which are rejected, then he leaves: in plot terms, nothing has happened. But in terms of character, a tectonic shift has occurred. This is the first time since All Hallows’ in Esher (in Wolf Hall) that Cromwell has cried; the last time, indeed, that he will cry.3

The question is, why is Dorothea so important to Cromwell? On the face of it, it is only because she carries Wolsey’s blood: they have scarcely met before. But Mantel is continually playful with the idea of blood, with Cromwell’s attitudes to it. The aristocracy scorn him for his ‘vile blood’ – it is their one argument against his high office. Cromwell, meanwhile, tells us he no more cares for an aristocrat’s blood than he cares for their turds. Even when Cromwell sees King Henry’s blood – in a white basin in his bedchamber – he appears indifferent; he has no more squeamishness than a butcher. But the King’s blood is indubitably important – it here represents the King’s illness, his vulnerability, his mortality; if the King dies, what becomes of Cromwell? Civil war is an entirely pragmatic threat should there be no heir of the King’s blood. And this is not to mention the theological entanglements of Holy Blood and the blood of martyrs. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, is it a sacrament or is it not?

Mantel is equally playful with Cromwell for his attitude to ghosts. Cromwell does not believe in ghosts, but they haunt him nonetheless. The scene in Wolf Hall which this passage specifically references is ‘that day at Esher, the ashes cold in the grates, the wind howling through every crack – then the dead souls came out of purgatory blowing around the courtyards and rattling at the shutters to be let in. That was what we believed in those days. What many believed.

‘“I still,” Christophe says.’

What becomes of the souls of the dead is the hinge of the trilogy; the hinge, perhaps, of the Reformation itself. If we say that purgatory does not exist, that prayers, and chantries, and intercessions have no efficacy then what can we do for the dead? Nothing? That is a hard choice for Cromwell, a man who believes in actions above words. Swirling around him at Esher were the souls of Liz, Anne, Grace. At Shaftesbury Abbey it is the Cardinal. Eliza Barton, the Prophetess, ‘searched Heaven and Hell, she said, and never found Wolsey, till she found him at last in a place that was no place, seated among the unborn.’

But Dorothea’s response effectively cuts Cromwell from the ghost of his surrogate father, Wolsey, and leaves him no comfort even in prayer, because he believes the dead beyond prayer.

So it turns out that the way in which Dorothea is most important to Cromwell is not by her lineage or even by the memory of her father, it is by the mirror that she holds up to Cromwell himself. Mirrors – as the book’s title suggest – are another important symbol for Mantel. Henry is ‘the mirror and the light of other kings’, but Cromwell is also the mirror to Henry’s light – with the light gone, the mirror reflects nothing. Holbein paints the King’s portrait and this is another kind of mirror. The King’s courtships progress by the exchange of images – but how true are images? ‘Henry owns more than a hundred looking-glasses. If they had a memory, we could send one that reflected the prince as he was … tumbling curls, broad shoulders, damask skin.’ Historical record tells us that Henry felt misled by the portrait of Anne of Cleves, that the deception of the image doomed his marriage. In the novel, though – and surely more likely to be true – the doom is wrought when Henry, disguised, sees and cannot afterwards unsee himself unflatteringly reflected in Anne’s eyes when she does not know his rank.

Is this the truest mirror, the novel seems to ask, or only the most bitter? This moment with the King is foreshadowed when Cromwell meets Dorothea. Cromwell offers to welcome Dorothea into his household, but she finds the idea repellent. ‘“Live with you?” The chill in her tone pushes him backwards even in the cramped space.’ He thinks she is hostile at first because his person is ‘defective’, next because he proceeds against her religious house, next, because she perceives him to be irreligious in his own faith. She shakes with anger. All these things she hates, of course, but there is worse: his ‘nature’, his ‘deeds’. To Dorothea, via the witness of her father Wolsey, he is a ‘spy’, a forger, a ‘perjurer’: ‘“There is no faith or trust in Cromwell.”’

And this nature, these deeds, of course, are what the reader has seen, condoned, and walked with through the novels. We have allowed them. Even those of us who feel that there is some good in Cromwell are hard-pressed to deny the bad.

This depth of interaction with the characters, with the symbolism and the metaphysics of the novels makes their density inevitable. With Hilary Mantel, rereading becomes a pleasure.

‘Trust your reader, stop patronising your reader, give your reader credit for being smart as you at least,’ she writes, ‘Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility.‘4

But in what sense, you might still ask, is any of this true? Why should we believe it? We see Cromwell’s tears – very affecting – but are they not a simple untruth; a literary kind of forgery and perjury?

In 2011 I wrote to Hilary asking about the scene in Wolf Hall that this scene revisits.5 I admired the complexity of the imagery, the grief that comes in waves, and the many foreshadowings – seepings, she might say – of the scene.

She replied referencing an ‘equivalent passage in George Cavendish’s memoir of Wolsey (a near contemporary account). All I have really done is switch the viewpoint. The passage is written from Cavendish’s point of view; he sees Cromwell crying and reading a prayer book (‘which would since have been a very strange sight.’) George asks him what’s the matter. Cromwell tells him that he is lamenting the likely end of his career and fortune. It seemed to me that he might have multiple reasons for tears, and he might not have been willing to talk about them to Cavendish; he only told him the obvious ones, the ones that made immediate sense. And it seems to me that in life, when someone says, ‘why are you crying?’ it is a difficult question to answer, because the release of feeling is like a series of waves, and what you end up crying about may not be what you began crying about.

‘It seems to me a good example of the way a historical novelist might operate; a prayer book becomes a particular prayer book, the significance of the date is noticed, and then you think through it, as if it were happening to you.’6

In The Mirror and the Light she follows a similar process. Cromwell knows where Dorothea is because he later grants her a pension. If they had met earlier, how would each of them have approached the meeting, how would it have worked out? What emotions would surface, and what foreshadowings of fall and betrayal would be revealed?

I think it incontrovertible that Hilary Mantel’s novels have changed our perception of Thomas Cromwell, altered our understanding of the English Reformation – if not forever, then certainly for now. But this is an enrichment of the great Tudor myth, not a contamination. It has brought finance, legal process, diplomacy and realpolitik more to the fore, relegated romance and theology. While it retains its arch-villains, Henry and Cromwell, it has lost its martyrs as heroes.

‘Myth is not a falsehood,’ as Hilary Mantel says in her Reith Lecture, ‘It is a truth cast into symbol and metaphor.’ 7

About the contributor: Richard Lee is founder and chairman of the Historical Novel Society. He is currently writing a novel about the Crusades.


  1. Niall Fergusson. “Down with Junk History.” Hay Festival (May 2010).
  1. Hilary Mantel. Walter Scott Prize Masterclass series (2013), HNS website, available from
  1. Ibid. The Mirror and the Light, (Fourth Estate, 2020), pp. 282-290.
  1. Ibid. Giving Up the Ghost, (Picador, 2003), p.4.
  1. Ibid. Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009), “Make or Mar,” pp. 154-157.
  1. Ibid. Letter to Richard Lee (November 2011).
  1. Ibid. “The Iron Maiden.” Reigh Lectures (2017), available from

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissiones for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.