The Mirror and the Light | Hilary Mantel #Readalong

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.

Didn’t Anne die in the previous book? And didn’t we deal with the time immediately after her death already? Is this opening line a signal that a big recap is coming?

Yes and no.

As it turns out The Mirror and the Light is an overlong meander to Cromwell’s own meeting with the executioner. The story is bookended by bloody deaths.

For the first third of the book, Cromwell is haunted by his involvement in Anne Boleyn’s death and the five men who went down with her. He goes over and over the conniving and plotting in the days leading up to their deaths. Last conversations, decisions made when and by whom, their last moments on the scaffold. It could be said that he was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

But then the action slows right down. Everything moves at a snail’s pace as it feels like Mantel crammed in every single thought and idea she has ever had about Cromwell into this chunkster of a book. We get LOTS of Cromwell remembering his childhood in Putney and his time in Italy. Unnecessarily so, I thought.

After the first couple of flashbacks, I understood that Mantel wanted us to see how Cromwell’s views about his childhood and early adult years changed and evolved as he matured. It’s something we all do. With greater distance and time between the events of the past, it can be easier to finally acknowledge what really happened or accept our part in what happened. However, I didn’t need to see Cromwell go over and over these times. I got it after the first few examples.

The LA Review of Books explains that this remembering, revising, reinterpreting process

complicates the first two books. Cromwell is no longer just the living future fighting free of the dead past, but part of that past himself. 

The Dead Against the Living: On Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light | Maya Chhabra | LA Review of Books | 9 April 2020

I get that. And I even enjoyed it. It was satisfying to see such a nuanced and complex development of character. It felt real; a bit messy and self-justifying. I just didn’t need as much of it as Mantel provided.

The pace picked up again in the final third as we all began to realise that murky undercurrents were working against Cromwell. It took Cromwell quite a few more chapters to see it coming as well. The tension was nicely played out.

Knowing a few of the details of Cromwell’s execution (i.e. that it took 2-3 blows for the axe to take his head off) I was curious fearful to see how Mantel would manage this with her curious mix of first person/third person narration. Mantel made us wait until the very last page. It was gruesome. But once your narrator is dead, there’s nowhere else to go. Story over.

The Author’s Notes at the end wrapped up the rest of the story nicely. We got a quick run down on what happened to the main players following Cromwell’s death. Who got executed, who got promoted, who got to die of old age. I needed to know that his son Gregory ended up okay as well as his nephew, Richard. It was gratifying to realise that Thomas’s great grandnephew was Oliver Cromwell.

When I was compiling my On Quotes below, I realised that had not underlined or made any where near as many notes in my copy of The Mirror and the Light as I had with the previous two books. A sign that I wasn’t as struck by the writing or the ideas as I was for the other books.

I’m glad I finished the trilogy, it was a fascinating, and dare I say, an audacious attempt at reinterpreting one of the bad boys of history, but it really was over-long and unnecessarily drawn out in the end.

On Gregory:

‘Distracted.’ Gregory repeats. Recently his son was sent off to learn the art of public speaking, and the result is that, though he still lacks the command that makes for rhetorical sweep, he has become more interested in words if you take them one by one. Sometimes he seems to be holding them up for scrutiny. Sometimes he seems to be poking them with a stick. Sometimes, and the comparison is unavoidable, he seems to approach them with the tail-wagging interest a dog takes in another dog’s turds.

On Time:

Seven years for the king to get Anne. Three years to reign. Three weeks to bring her to trial. Three heartbeats to finish it. But still, they are his heartbeats as well as hers.

On Deceit:

You will see Henry, profound in deception, take an ambassador’s arm and charm him. Lying gives him a deep and subtle pleasure, so deep and subtle he does not know he is lying; he thinks he is the most truthful of princes.

On Premonitions:

I felt a breeze on my neck, as if my head were lifting away.

On Revisionism:

A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done….Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly, and the law must run to keep up.

On Poetry Appreciation:

In Wyatt’s verse there is a tussle in every line.

On Delegation:

The king never does an unpleasant thing. Lord Cromwell does it for him.

On Moving House:

There is always a current of disturbance, till a house settles about you: till your dog finds its way to the hearth and the sheets to the beds, the beef to the table.

On Influence:

The archbishop tells Henry how to be good, and I tell him how to be king.

On The Reformation:

The English will see God in daylight, not hidden in a cloud of incense; they will hear his word from a minister who faces them, instead of turning his back and muttering in a foreign language….We will have an end to images…. The faithful will cherish their Saviour in their inner heart, instead of gawping at him painted above their heads….God is not his gown, he is not his coat, he is not shreds of flesh or nails or thorns….But dwells in the human heart.

On Luck:

Jane was lucky and unlucky, she says: lucky to become queen of England, unlucky to die of it.

On Finding the Title of the Book Hiding on page 616:

…he writes, they would have seen henry’s learning and marvelled at it. They would have witnessed his judgement, his policy: they would have seen him as…the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom.

On Public Service:

It is not written that great men shall be happy men. It is nowhere recorded that the rewards of public office include a quiet mind.

On Death:

We are all dying, just at different speeds.

when you are dying, no one will look at you.


François Villon:
Frères humains, qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les cœurs contre nous endurcis.

Brother men, you who live after us,
Do not harden your hearts against us.
Noah's Flood, A Miracle Play :
Look up and see the wind,
For we be ready to sail.

Favourite Quote:

Reginald’s plain exterior gives no idea of the elaborate, useless nature of his mind, with its little shelves and niches for scruples and doubts.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Poem Heralding the Execution of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

THE pillar perish’d is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went,
To mine unhap, for hap away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind,
And I, alas, by chance am thus assign’ d
Daily to mourn, till death do it relent.
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart;
My pen in plaint, my voice in careful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart;
And I myself, myself always to hate,
Till dreadful death do ease my doleful state.

– Sir Thomas Wyatt

Thank you to everyone who travelled with me to Tudor England over the past four months. I have valued your comments and support along the way. I hope those of you who also read along, found the trilogy as satisfying and interesting as I did.

I would love to know what your favourite Henry VIII book is – fact or fiction. I’m also keen to learn more about The Reformation, but Diarmaid MacCulloch’s huge book on the history of Christianity is too much for me right now. Briefer recommendations would be welcomed.

Readalong Posts:

Related Posts:

Wolf Hall reviews:

Bring Up the Bodies reviews:

The Mirror and the Light reviews:


  • Longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Book:  The Mirror and the Light | Hilary Mantel
ISBN: 9780007580835
Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication Date: 3rd February 2021 (first published 5th March 2020)
Format: Trade Paperback


10 thoughts on “The Mirror and the Light | Hilary Mantel #Readalong

    1. Thanks Emma.
      I did enjoy my time with this book (and the other two), and like you, loved seeing all the mirror and light references throughout. I was going to spend more time talking about the various motifs, ghosts/memories, threads/cloths, birds/flight, but was exhausted by the end!


  1. I have two favourite Henry VIII – Herman’s Hermits singing I’m Henery the Eighth I am; and Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Shrew, and interesting take on Katherine Parr as feminist and saviour of the Reformation.

    Thankyou for all the work and thought you’ve put into this project, and into Moby Dick last year. you’re an inspiration!


    1. Thanks for the book tip – I haven’t read a PG in years, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t read that one.
      There is also a scene in Ghost (don’t judge!) where Patrick Swayze’s character is singing Henery the Eighth I Am to Whoopi Goldberg to prove to her that she can really see/hear dead people. Thanks for the ear worm!

      Moby Dick was such a huge undertaking, and I’m so glad I did it…and that others, like you, got something out of it too 🙂


  2. I also got bogged down in the middle. I think it will be better on the reread though (and I will reread it!). I love the passages you picked. Mantel’s so good, you can find something quotable on most pages! I read a couple of Tudor books after finishing the series, I enjoyed The Life and Death of Anne Bolyen, and Young and Damned and Fair is about Katherine Howard, so what happens next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad someone else got bogged down in the middle, I was beginning to think I was the only one to have some reservations! Thanks for the tips about the books, I’ll check them out.


  3. Thanks for this! The quotes do sound good.

    Still sounds like you thought the third volume was the weakest–which I’ve certainly heard elsewhere, too. I’m sure I’ll carry on, but in the meantime I’ve gotten distracted (at least on this front…) by McCullough’s biography of Cromwell. I might blog about that when I finish. (No hope of my reading his book on the Reformation…and then he’s got an even longer history of Christianity! Yikes!)


    1. Oh I didn’t realise McCullough had a book just on The Reformation (didn’t even check his backlist) that certainly might be more do-able than The Christianity one sitting by Mr Books side of the bed.
      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Cromwell, though.
      And, yes, I did feel like this was the weakest book of the three.


  4. I also got bogged down in the middle. There were evenings I could only read 20 pages, maybe 40 if I tried hard, and that was very frustrating. Unfortunately I cannot even put my finger on why I found this a difficult read. I liked the first part of the book, when he was dwelling on Anne Boleyn’s death. And the end was good. I wish that part could have been expanded and some other parts left out.

    I am still glad I read it. And maybe I would enjoy more if I reread it. Don’t know if I will hold on to the book or not. All of this history was new to me, although I did start reading more about it as I got into the trilogy. So the disgusting behavior of those families near to the court and those who wanted to be was a big surprise.

    I have McCullough’s biography of Cromwell and plan to read it. My husband has Peter Ackroyd’s book on the Tudors and I plan to read that. And I am in the midst of Lauren Mackay’s Wolf Hall Companion.


    1. The royal hanger-oner’s throughout history have been very dubious people judging by what I read in all the Jean Plaidy books I read in my teens/early 20’s. Didn’t matter if it was the English, Scottish, French, Spanish or Italian courts. Power, or the potential for power, does not bring out the best in most people.

      I do wonder if Mantel simply got too caught up in her story and all the research she had done, in the middle of this book. It felt like she wanted to put in everything she knew – a good edit in the middle would have fixed it, I think! It really didn’t need so much repetition.

      But it’s just a quibble in the end. The trilogy was such an absorbing, rich reading experience that I will always be glad that I gave a few months of my life to read them together.

      Thank you for joining in and for your thoughts and support 🙂


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