In the instalment of Hilary Mantel’s new novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, read by Anton Lesser on Radio Four on Tuesday 24 March, Thomas Cromwell arrives incognito at Shaftesbury Abbey. (Episode 7: Rejection. Available for one month at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000gl8v ) It is the autumn of 1536 and Cromwell is the second most powerful man in the land, after his master King Henry VIII. The Abbess Elizabeth Zouche recognises Cromwell, having previously seen his portrait, and admits him to the presence of one of the younger nuns, Dorothea Clancey. Dorothea is the illegitimate daughter of Cardinal Wolsey whom Cromwell served until Wolsey’s fall and death in 1530. Cromwell considers that he owes a debt of loyalty to Wolsey and is dismayed to discover that Dorothea not only refuses the gifts he brings but is convinced that Cromwell betrayed her father.
Hilary Mantel’s great gift has been to create a plausible and sympathetic character for Thomas Cromwell while not straying too far from the surviving evidence. Elizabeth Zouche and Dorothea Clancey (called Dorothy Clusey by other writers) both existed and received pensions when Shaftesbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Cromwell would have known about Wolsey’s illegitimate children – there were also two sons – and he received at least one letter about Dorothea. Whether he ever visited Shaftesbury and what his innermost thoughts were, remain the province of the fiction writer.