Hilary Mantel in Mortlake
It was in July 1536 that Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, became Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. With this title came the former archiepiscopal manor house in Mortlake (situated on the eastern side of Ship Lane) which he visited regularly until 1540. It is this period of Cromwell's life that is covered in Hilary Mantel's book The Mirror and the Light.
Mortlake was just one of Cromwell's residences but Mantel's practice of meticulously researching her characters and settings brought her to Mortlake in the spring of 2017 to see for herself where the manor house stood and to explore the area that Cromwell himself knew so well. While she walked around the site and visited St Mary's, Mantel made copious notes, took many photographs and asked innumerable questions. Most interestingly, she constantly looked around her and became quiet and thoughtful as if imagining herself back 450 years.
It is Mantel's vivid imagination and her ability to write in sumptuous detail that brings the court of Henry VIII to life in a way that many of us did not experience when we learnt so dryly about the six wives of Henry VIII at school. Instead, we are transported to another world – one of intrigue, secret dealing, religious turmoil and the minutiae of Tudor life that grips and holds us throughout the 2000 pages of her trilogy.
Mantel depicts Cromwell as a complex and subtle individual, both a scrupulous schemer and a loyal and generous man. She creates a very human and sympathetic character rather than the one-dimensional ruthless killer that is often portrayed.
Cromwell spent considerable sums of money improving his house in Mortlake, and his son Gregory was married there. They would have been familiar with the village and recognised the bend in the river as seen at the end of Ship Lane. From the slipway there, Thomas would take his boat to visit the king at Hampton Court, Whitehall or Greenwich.
Hilary Mantel died suddenly on 22 September 2022. Just a few days before she died, Hilary emailed me:
Only this afternoon, Helen, we were talking about you...all 3 of us [Hilary, her husband Gerald and the actor Ben Miles who played Cromwell on stage] were doing an interview for the Guardian, and I was recalling the moment you said, "Ship Lane has always been there." As I put it to the interviewer, those words jumped out at me and arced over the afternoon in flashing coloured lights. In that moment, the unknown part of Thomas Cromwell's early life created itself, and I felt as if I held the missing part of the third book in the palm of my hand. I used your exact phrase in the book. It was magic. You were both so kind to us and made me a gift of one of the most decisive moments of my writing life. It's a pleasure to be able to send you the book at last, and I am only sorry it took so long. We were almost there when Covid hit, and prevented any ventures for a long time. We are hoping that in the next year or so we will be able to set up some exhibitions, here or abroad. Gerald and I are moving to Ireland at the end of the month, to Kinsale, so a new phase begins.
I have passed your message to Ben and George [Miles] already and I know they will join me in sending renewed thanks and good wishes.