Bring Up the Bodies – The Facts Behind the Fiction

Posted By on June 26, 2012

Since Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies has been published, I have been inundated with emails asking me if I was going to review it and also asking me whether certain things are true. Well, I’m not going to review it because I don’t feel right doing that when I’ve also written a book on Anne Boleyn’s fall, but my good friend Clare Cherry and I have made a list of some of the things in the book which are not true or that are, at best, questionable.

“Why have we bothered to do this when it’s only a novel?”, you may ask; well, in historical fiction there is a blurring of fact and fiction, and when a book is being applauded for its accuracy then it is important to know just what is true and what is not.

George Boleyn

  • George Boleyn cries at his trial and has to be helped to a chair for fear that he will collapse – In actual fact, George’s defence was so impressive that a number of people commented on it. Following his condemnation, he met his fate with composure. He begged only that his debts would be paid out of his estate prior to confiscation by the crown so that no one would suffer financially because of his death.
  • He’s portrayed as a bit of a dandy or a fop with his clothes “braided and tasselled, stippled and striped and slashed”, not as an intellectual reformer, diplomat and poet.

The Five Men

  • In Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton performed in a play about Wolsey being dragged to Hell. In reality, Thomas Boleyn commissioned the play, which was performed at a private meal for the French Ambassador, and the Duke of Norfolk arranged for the play to be published. There is no mention of any of the men even being present when it was performed, let alone acting in it. George probably was there, but the notion of an aspiring courtier, diplomat and politician demeaning himself by performing in a farce is… farcical!
  • Hilary Mantel has Cromwell conspiring against George, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton out of pure vengeance for their parts in the play about Wolsey: “‘All the players are gone, ‘ Wriothesley says. ‘All four who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool Mark who made a ballad of their exploits.'”. However, in real life, Francis Weston was arrested after Anne mentioned him in her panicked ramblings in the Tower following her arrest, William Brereton had previously come to blows with Cromwell, and Henry Norris was a powerful and influential courtier. They were thorns in Cromwell’s side in his quest for power and influence over Henry, none of which is mentioned.
  • Weston, Norris, Brereton and George are portrayed as unremittingly arrogant, obnoxious and unpleasant. However, Henry Norris was a decent and honourable man. In fact it was Norris who offered Wolsey a room following his disgrace and banishment to the north. He showed great kindness to Wolsey which is commented on in George Cavendish’s biography of Wolsey (Cavendish was Wolsey’s gentleman usher). Norris appears to have been universally liked, and his death was deeply mourned. Likewise Francis Weston is described as a likable young man. There is no evidence to support the portrayal of Norris, Weston or George Boleyn.
  • Mark Smeaton – When Cromwell meets musician Mark Smeaton, he thinks to himself “I wouldn’t trust you around my little boys”. There is, however, no evidence that Smeaton was anything other than a talented musician and he was definitely a favourite of the King, “wholly supported and clothed” by Henry VIII.
  • Henry Norris is portrayed as being in love with Anne and she is portrayed as encouraging him. In reality, there is no evidence of this. Norris was one of the King’s closest friends and was also courting Anne’s cousin, Madge Shelton, so it would have been natural for him to be close to the Queen and to partake in the chivalric tradition of courtly love which Anne was keen on.
  • William Brereton is named by Jane Boleyn as being a man who was interested in Anne and who may have committed adultery with her, yet Brereton was not a member of Anne Boleyn’s inner circle and it appears that his arrest and execution were more to do with his activities in Wales and his opposition to Cromwell’s reforms there. Cromwell was planning further administrative reforms for Wales and did not want any obstacles in his path. He was the perfect fall guy for Cromwell, having already garnered a reputation for corruption. He may have been a corrupt character, but, as Norris’s servant, George Constantine, said, “yf any of them was innocent, it was he”. He was the odd one out.
  • The gossip, well before anyone is arrested, is that Anne “has all the gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, one after another” and that they are all jealous of one another. There is no mention in any contemporary sources of Anne having a reputation for such behaviour. The arrests were a shock to everyone because they were so out of the blue.

Cromwell and Wolsey

  • Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as being entirely loyal to Wolsey, hence his loathing for those who brought Wolsey down. In reality, whatever Cromwell’s personal feelings towards Wolsey may have been, he took full advantage of his fall. Although Cromwell advised Wolsey to bribe some of Anne’s favourites in an attempt to gain favour with her, he ensured that all of the recipients to those bribes knew that the suggestion came from him, and therefore they had him to thank for them and not Wolsey.

Jane Boleyn

  • Despite quoting Julia Fox’s, ‘The Infamous Lady Rochford’, Mantel regurgitates the old myths about Jane Rochford providing evidence to Cromwell to support the incest allegation. Mantel also portrays George and Jane’s marriage as unhappy, with George humiliating Jane by sleeping with whores and Jane telling Cromwell that she thinks that George has given her a disease and that is why she cannot have children. Jane goes on to say, “Nothing is forbidden to George, you see. He’d go to it with a terrier bitch if she wagged her tail at him and said bow-wow.” He comes across as depraved and capable of incest.
    There is no extant evidence to suggest Jane gave testified against Anne and George other than saying that Anne had spoken to her of Henry’s impotency. There is also no evidence regarding George and Jane’s marriage or evidence of any deviant sexual behaviour.
  • Jane is an unsavoury character in “Bring Up the Bodies”, just as she is in “The Other Boleyn Girl”. Cromwell says “If someone said to Lady Rochford, ‘It’s raining,’ she would turn it into a conspiracy; as she passed the news on, she would make it sound somehow indecent, unlikely, but sadly true.” She is a gossip and tell-tale. In reality, we don’t know what Jane was like but her involvement in Catherine Howard’s fall has led people to label her as a ‘meddler’.

Anne Boleyn, Reform and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

  • The religious upheaval of the dissolution of the monasteries and the question of the use of Monastic funds is largely absent from Bring Up the Bodies, yet we know that Anne Boleyn was committed to those funds being used for charitable purposes. Her commitment to preventing the corruption of those funds by Henry and Cromwell is entirely absent, as is her and her brother’s genuine commitment to reform of the Catholic Church.

Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn family

  • Anne Boleyn is reduced to a similar caricature to the one portrayed in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. She is calculating and is forever plotting. Cromwell describes her as “a serpent” and Lady Rochford tells him of how “she used to practise with Henry in the French fashion”.  Her behaviour, both generally and sexually, is seen as depraved and the Anne of the book is certainly capable of the charges laid against her. The religious, intellectual and charitable patron of history is sadly lacking.
  • The issue of whether Anne and the men were guilty of the crimes they were accused of is left wide open, but there is a strong suggestion in the novel that Anne may have been guilty and also an indication that Cromwell believed she may well have been guilty after all. There is also an indication that Henry turned against her due to her sexual depravity in bed (see above). People are falling over themselves to provide evidence against her, including her own ladies. Again, as in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, there is a suggestion that Anne and George may have copulated in order to produce a son. In reality, it has been established by most historians that a combination of factors resulted in Anne’s downfall i.e. her failure to produce a son, her opposition to Henry’s policies on Monastic funding, Henry’s increasing attachment to Jane Seymour and Anne getting in the way of Henry’s preferred foreign policy. None of this is fully explored. Although G W Bernard argues that Anne may have been guilty with at least some of the men, his arguments are weak, and, in any event, not even he attempts to argue that Anne and George were guilty of incest, and there was no direct evidence of wrongdoing. The majority of historians believe that Anne and the men were innocent and were framed.
  • In the novel, Cromwell loathes Thomas, Anne and George Boleyn and holds Thomas and George in complete contempt. At one point, he asks of George Boleyn, ‘what are you for?’! George is completely obnoxious and arrogant towards Cromwell, which illustrates the point that George is simply a foolish, ignorant young man. However, in real life, Cromwell achieved success partly with the patronage of the Boleyns. He worked closely with them and had a good working relationship with Anne for many years. Both Thomas and George were highly competent and highly thought of courtiers, politicians and diplomats. They were talented men who Cromwell would have been foolish to hold in such low regard. Cromwell had a lot to thank the Boleyns for, and likewise the Boleyns had a lot to thank Cromwell for. It was a symbiotic relationship, which worked well for all of them.
  • Norfolk and Surrey discuss the attempted poisoning of Bishop Fisher and the gossip that the Boleyns were responsible for this. When he was arrested, Fisher’s cook, Richard Roose, allegedly claimed that had had just put purgatives into the food as a joke and that he meant no harm. Two poor people, Bennett Curwen and Alice Tryppytt, died from eating the food and Roose was “attainted of high treason” and “boiled to death without benefit of clergy”. There is no mention in the official records of the Boleyns being implicated, however, there was gossip.

The Seymours and Wolf Hall

  • John Seymour and his daughter-in-law – Hilary Mantel describes Jane Seymour’s father, John Seymour, as being “notorious for having had an affair with his daughter-in-law”, but although this is repeated as fact in many novels and history books we don’t actually know whether it is true. Author Susan Higginbotham writes in her article on Edward Seymour:
    “Modern writers, even authors of nonfiction, have improved upon the bare allegation of incest. Alison Weir in The Six Wives of Henry VIII writes that “the scandal had shocked even Henry VIII’s courtiers,” while Elizabeth Norton in her biography of Jane Seymour states that the relationship between Edward Seymour and his father “would have been irreparably damaged” and that society would have “shied away from any alliance with” the Seymour family. Joanna Denny in her peculiar biography of Anne Boleyn writes of “the great scandal that attached to the Seymour name.” None of these writers give any sources for their statements. In fact, there is no contemporary evidence of hostility between John Seymour and his son, no evidence that Somerset’s marital difficulties excited any interest at Henry VIII’s court at the time, and no evidence that the Seymour family was shunned. Far from being a pariah at court, Somerset enjoyed increasing royal favor throughout the 1520’s, long before his sister Jane came to Henry VIII’s attention. Thus, while Katherine Fillol may have been unfaithful to her husband, or at least may have been thought by him to have been unfaithful, there is no contemporary evidence to support the later story that her sexual partner was her father-in-law.”
  • In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII visits Wolf Hall without his wife, yet Wolf Hall was one of the main stops on Henry and Anne’s 1535 summer progress and the couple stayed there from the 4th to 10th September.

Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn

  • In the novel, poet and courtier Thomas Wyatt is “widely believed of being a lover of Anne Boleyn” and Sir Francis Weston comments, “of course, Wyatt’s had her.” In reality, it is thought that Wyatt’s feelings for Anne were unrequited and there is certainly no evidence of a romantic or sexual relationship.
  • Wyatt is portrayed as being bitter about his involvement with Anne and the way that she teases men and plays with them. Wyatt tells Cromwell of how Anne boasts to him of how she says “no” to him, “but yes to others” and Cromwell agrees, thinking to himself that Anne is “a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price”. In reality, there is no evidence to back up this idea of Anne, or Wyatt’s alleged bitterness.

Henry Fitzroy

  • In the novel, Henry Fitzroy replaces George Boleyn as Warden of the Cinque Ports – Alison Weir writes of how Richmond was “appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle in place of Rochford” and cites Beverley Murphy “Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son”(2001), but Letters and Papers records Sir Thomas Cheyne (Cheyney) being appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle in May 1536 (LP x.898, 1015)

Cromwell Biography

In her Author’s Note, Mantel comments that Cromwell “is still in need of attention from biographers” and makes no mention of John Schofield’s excellent biography of Cromwell. If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating man then do read Schofield’s book “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell”, I highly recommend it.

Last Thoughts from Claire

Bring Up the Bodies is a very readable book and I will always enjoy reading fiction on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, but I was disappointed by the characterization. I felt no empathy with any of the characters and if I hadn’t known their real stories then I would not have cared about their tragic ends. The sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell seemed to be at the expense of everyone else, which is a shame. That is, however, just my opinion.

What did you think?

By the way, the above list of inaccuracies is not exhaustive so please do feel free to add to it by commenting below.

Notes and Sources

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