This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: In Wolf Hall, Thomas More’s death is dealt with in glancing flashback, while in Bring Up the Bodies Anne Boleyn’s is given full, painful scenic treatment. We are forced to bear witness to the latter, while it seems as if Thomas Cromwell wishes not to dwell on the former. What drove the decisions to treat each of these deaths this way?
Hilary Mantel: Everything in the Wolf Hall trilogy depends on what Cromwell sees or chooses not to see, and from what angle. He is positioned differently to these two deaths. In More’s case, Cromwell has been locked in combat with him for months, pressurizing and persuading, threatening and coaxing. Victory, for Cromwell, would be keeping More alive, making him conformable to the king’s will. More’s capitulation would be a propaganda coup for the regime. And by this stage, any personal animosity towards More has been replaced by a grudging pity, and a knowledge that even when he’s dead he won’t go away. It is the king, not Cromwell, who has decided on More’s death. Henry is not going to change his mind, without losing face and setting a precedent for rebels. In these circumstances, Cromwell—who has been the perfect servant of the state—walks away. There is no more for him to do, and the way More’s death is narrated reflects his attempt to detach himself. He is already moving on to the next crisis.
With Anne Boleyn, it is different. His heart is in his mouth. To the last moment, it could go wrong. If the king changes his mind, that could mean his own death. Even when the queen’s head is off, it is so quick that he and the rest of the spectators can hardly recognize what has occurred. So I thought we as writer and reader must be there—we must follow her every breath, until it is cut off.
There are a number of decapitations in this story. From the craft point of view, I thought that one—and one only—could be done in this filmic style. I don’t feel that, because of the indirection, More’s end is under-realized. After all, as Cromwell finds in the third novel, he is “more solid in death than in life.”
When writing a death scene that might be familiar to readers from history or from many previous cultural depictions, is there anything you search for in your research or your imagination to make the scene feel fresh and surprising?
Anne Boleyn’s execution is singular, because of the imported swordsman—his expenses are documented, and his manner of carrying out his duties was novel, and so noted. But often, the record won’t do much for you. Sixteenth century history is usually written to reflect the way the writer thinks events should have happened, rather than the way they did—and a public death is a vehicle for moral teaching about sin, repentance, redemption. So every traitor appears to die the same way: godly, penitent, embracing their guilt, and thanking the king for being perceptive enough to see what a wretch he’s had close to his person.
It seems odd to a modern, who would be protesting to the last, but it’s likely this is close to the way victims really died—or meant to die, even if fear silenced them at the last. There was practical value in speaking well of the king on the scaffold. You might persuade him to be lenient to your family, and let them retain some of your worldly goods and land. This is what happened with Thomas Cromwell: When the king had taken time to regret what he had done, he gave Gregory Cromwell a barony.
That’s what the record tells us, but the reader wants something specific, not generic, and human rather than lapidary. So the final scenes are best approached imaginatively, by the author putting herself in place of a spectator. Or—as in the final scenes in The Mirror and the Light—inside the body of the sufferer, as blood flows and the scene dims. There is a tradition that finishing Cromwell took some time, though no contemporary witness notes anything unusual. I decided that I would follow the tradition, and stay with his ebbing consciousness.
You’ve said in interviews that you first wrote about Cromwell’s beheading shortly after you wrote the first scene of Wolf Hall. How has that scene evolved or changed from the way you first thought of it to the way it finally appears in The Mirror and the Light?
I made about a dozen drafts early in my writing, and when I came to write the final scene, years later, I sifted those options and shaped them to arrive at what I thought was the best balance. This is not unusual for me—I always make a book as a collage, before I reach the stage of sitting down to construct a continuous narrative. Partway through the final book, I also knew that I was working towards the Petrarch quote on the last page—that was the light I was steering by, “the pure radiance of the past.”
Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including picks from Stephen King, Annie Proulx, David Simon, and more.