Dame Hilary Mantel brings past to life at Hinchingbrooke School

Hilary Mantel at Hinchingbrooke School

Hilary Mantel at Hinchingbrooke School - Credit: Archant

Dame Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, spoke at Hinchingbrooke House on Saturday, to mark the 450th anniversary of Huntingdon Grammar School. Hunts Post reporter ANGELA SINGER was there.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s characters are real for her. That’s why they are real for us. She takes us by the hand to stand beside them.

She speaks as evocatively and amusingly as she writes. Sometimes it’s poetry, sometimes, there is a chill about it. The next books starts, she told me, “two minutes after the execution of Anne Boleyn and ends with the execution of Thomas Cromwell.”

And while we are on the death of Anne, one of Dame Hilary’s strengths is her passion for going back to original sources, like the notes Lady Kingston wrote about her charge when Anne was held in the Tower before her death.

“She wrote down whatever Anne said and the gaoler William Kingston took those notes straight to Cromwell. In them, we are hearing Anne speak. Those are the most valuable of all the documents. Kingston hasn’t got a theory. He doesn’t understand why she keeps laughing. He’s not interpreting what is happening because he can’t. It’s like flat reporting. It makes her solid and real.

“She was hysterical. She was laughing and crying. He’d never seen a woman behave like that. He said she had joy and pleasure in death.”

Speaking at Hinchingbrooke, the home of one of her characters, Richard Cromwell, nephew to her main man, Thomas, she said: “I didn’t feel I knew him until I came here.” She thanked her audience not just for their hospitality but for their inspiration.

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She said there was something magic about speaking there on the very day of the 450th anniversary of Huntingdon Grammar School, May 2, 1565. It was also the anniversary of glorious time in Richard Cromwell’s life.

On May Day, 1540, he had taken part in a tournament in Westminster. Richard was victorious in the joust and in ground combat. He was made a knight. The day is captured in a painting found behind a panel in Hinchingbrooke House in the 1970s and the tournament was documented at the time.

“Richard is described as richly appareled with his horses dressed in white velvet. The king was so moved and exhilarated, he took a diamond from his finger and threw it to him saying you are my diamond. Richard comes home to Hinchingbrooke and paints his triumph on the walls. You can see in the painting, the swirl of the action.”

Richard became a Member of Parliament and Sheriff of Huntingdonshire. The third book, The Mirror and the Light is to have a scene set in Hinchingbrooke. She said: “I am hoping to bring Thomas Cromwell over here to visit his nephew.”

Asked why she decided to tell the story of King Henry VIII through his most powerful and hated minister, she said: “It was the other way round. I wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell. His story drew me unlike any other because he was a blacksmith’s son, because of the arc of his story. He had a really spectacular career, you ask yourself how was that managed, what kind of person could do that. If he is a villain, he is an interesting one.”

She told the audience: “The day after Cromwell’s execution, Richard came to court wearing mourning. That was an act of defiance. A traitor’s name should be erased. You do not mourn them. Richard was a man of loyalty and courage.”

After a decade as the most powerful man in England, second only to the King, Thomas had become Earl of Essex and Lord Chamberlain.

“It may have been those titles that made the aristocracy act. It was much deeper than snobbery. They thought it was going against nature. The ordinary people too, felt they had a right to be ruled by lords.”

Hinchingbrooke, a former convent, was given to Richard on the dissolution of the monasteries. She said: “It is because of Richard Cromwell that we are here today. This place could be a heap of stones. It could have been removed from the landscape. Whether it was saved or lost depended on the whim of an individual.”

Other abbeys had disappeared. “There is nothing left of Sawtry. It was dissolved in the first wave. Several Cambridge colleges were built of the stones from Ramsey Abbey.” However, there was nothing sudden about the dissolution she said.

“In people’s minds it is mixed up with the coming of the Vikings and I think Thomas Beckett is in there somewhere. In fact, there was no slaughter of priests, the process was a lengthy legal wrangle. It took years and the abbots and nuns were pensioned off. Many had let the buildings go into disrepair, sold off the jewellery and were debauched. The history of the Prior of Huntingdon was colourful. He was said to have nine mistresses.”

Richard became the great grandfather of the better known Oliver Cromwell. She said “When I started writing Wolf Hall people said to me, don’t you mean Oliver?” (As if to say, poor dear) “Now, Oliver doesn’t get a look in.”

Richard had been taken into Thomas Cromwell’s household and adopted his uncle’s name when his father Morgan Williams had died.

“Richard’s grandmother was Joan Tudor. She was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VII so our obscure Richard was a cousin of Henry VIII. I had to stop and rub my eyes when I saw that. Williams had four bloodlines to the royal family of England and the Welsh Kings. That made his descendant Oliver Cromwell more royal than Charles I who he executed and who was in fact his 13th cousin.”

“I’m not here,” she said “to write moral report cards on dead people. I am here to listen, here to see if I can catch any whispers behind the panels that bring people back to life. By being here on this day with the past all around us, by this act of piety, we are not digging up bones but we are all resurrection men.”