Power, greed, lust, ambition. And religion, a universal toxin that seeps through the story poisoning everything.
Oh, there are moments of tenderness, loyalty, love, but on the whole, it is not a pretty picture.
Mantel paints vivid images of the excesses. Here is her description of the hanging and disemboweling of four monks who refuse the oath affirming Henry as head of the English Church:
If they think they will maintain to the end the equanimity of their prayer-lives, they are wrong, because the law demands the full traitor's penalty, the short spin in the wind and the conscious public disemboweling, a brazier alight for human entrails. It is the most horrible of all deaths, pain and rage and humiliation swallowed to the dregs, the fear so great that the strongest rebel in unmanned before the executioner with his knife can do the job; before each one dies he watches his fellows and, cut down from the rope, he crawls like an animal round and round on the bloody boards.These scenes, of course, are enacted in the public square, with huge audiences crowding close for entertainment. Protestants killing Catholics, Catholics killing Protestants –- each communion outdoes the other in doing God's chilling work.