The author Hilary Mantel has, quite rightly I'd say, won a second Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, which took the award a couple of years ago. There is to be a third book to complete a trilogy, and everyone who admires Hilary's work will doubtless be hoping that the book brings here a third Booker.
The books trace the career of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being the son of a violent and abusive smith in Putney, to being King Henry VIII's right-hand man. That is to say, the king's secretary, confidante, strategist, enforcer and hatchet man. Cromwell was an exceptionally competent man, and though history has cast him as a heartless villain, Hilary Mantel portrays him as a very real and three-dimensional human being.
As well as arranging the exit of the odd wife or two when Henry required him to do so, Cromwell was the chief architect of the Reformation, which denied the Pope any role in religion in England and made the monarch the head of a completely Anglican church. He undertook this enormous task for political reasons, certainly, but it was in line with his religious beliefs.
No part of the kingdom was untouched by this huge social and ecclesiastical upheaval, and of course its effects were felt acutely at Combermere, on the Cheshire/Shropshire border. In the first half of the Sixteenth century it would have been a sleepy and peaceful part of England (with raids across the border from Wales a thing of the past).
The Cistercian abbey at Combermere had been established for four hundred years previously and had grown wealthy and corrupt, and had drifted far from its founding principles. The Abbott and his monks must have thought that their way of life would be uninterrupted until the end of time. Firstly, though, Cromwell's commissioners arrived unannounced, brandishing documents bearing the royal seal, and full of their own power and authority. They demanded a full inventory of the Abbey's wealth, and woebetide any monastic clerk who tried to conceal treasure.
When Cromwell's men next returned to Combermere it was to do the unthinkable and expel the Abbott, the monks and the lay brothers into the lanes and fields. If they went quietly they might be allowed to become priests (of the new religion, of course) or receive a modest pension. Those who resisted often suffered summary execution. It was the biggest exchange of ownership of English land since the Norman conquest.
July 27 1539 - quite late on in the Dissolution of the monasteries - the Abbott,
John Massy, surrendered the Abbey. Cromwell sold it off cheaply to a local
magnate, Sir George Cotton, thus ensuring his continued loyalty. Various monies would doubtless have disappeared into Cromwell's own coffers too.
Looking at Combermere Abbey today, in all its beauty and serenity, it's almost impossible to imagine the turbulence of those times, and the terror of the monastic community at that moment. It played its part though in one of the most dramatic episodes in English history - one which changed this country in so many ways, and forever.