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Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall was the ancestral home of the Seymours, as in Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall has long since disappeared but is still remembered for the Seymours and the fact that Henry VIII at least visited it and may have even married Jane Seymour there. This book, however, is not about either Wolf Hall or Jane Seymour. The title comes presumably because the novel ends with Thomas Cromwell planning a journey there. Jane Seymour does appear in it, as lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn rather than as mother of Edward VI, the only surviving male child of Henry VIII who, briefly, succeeded his father as king. She is portrayed as shy, unassuming but not averse to gossip. While Mantel hints at what she will become, the hints are slight. This book is about Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell has had quite a bad press. Robert Bolt damned him, in his famous play, made into an even more famous film, A Man for All Seasons. The Wikipedia link given here says that Bolt’s play is based on the true story of Saint Sir Thomas More. Some may disagree with the word true. Mantel clearly does. In Bolt’s play, More is portrayed as a saintly man with a conscience. Mantel paints him as a petty, sanctimonious, weak and vicious man (he has a fair amount of heretics tortured and burned to death.) (Mantel (and the Cromwell of this book) have little time for men who are prepared to sacrifice their lives, often horribly, for a principle which, at least five hundred years later, seems rather arcane at best and maybe even stupid.) Bolt portrays Cromwell as a vindictive, spiteful man. Mantel gives a very different story, showing him as a loyal, hard-working, highly efficient administrator and accountant, who also has a heart and a conscience, frequently helping the distressed, including the victims of More. His enemies do have a slightly different view. For example, the Holy Roman Empire ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, commented When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it – oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same. But in the last resort, you just kick it in. Grudging praise but praise nevertheless.

We do learn briefly of Cromwell’s early life. The opening scene has him, as a teenager, being beaten up by his blacksmith father and thence escaping from London. We later learn that he has fought as a mercenary for the French and engaged in various trading activities in Europe, where he made some money, before returning to England to become a lawyer. It is in that capacity that we meet him, working for Cardinal Wolsey. He remains loyal to Wolsey, even after his downfall and death but is cleverly able to become Henry’s most trusted adviser. He is essentially Henry’s chief minister though he has few titles. Though Stephen Gardiner, the King’s Secretary and the Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in succession to Thomas More, outrank him, it is to Cromwell that Henry turns and it is apparently Cromwell that makes the decisions and takes the necessary action, whether it is organising Henry’s wedding to Anne or dissolving the monasteries. Cromwell has been blamed for many things – the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine Aragon, the beheading of Anne Boleyn and the dissolution of monasteries (from which he was alleged to have taken a very generous percentage of the proceeds). That he played a part in these and other actions is historically indisputable but, for Mantel, at least, he was carrying out the orders of his master and tried to dissuade him, wherever possible. She implies that he does enrich himself but it is not clear whether this is from honest trade or blatant theft.

While Cromwell is the hero of this novel, it is not all Cromwell, by any means. Mantel’s skill, as she did in A Place of Greater Safety, is to marry both an overview of a troubled period of history – who was doing what, what both the ordinary people and the high and mighty thought about it and what caused the events we know from history – with detailed portraits of key characters. As well as Cromwell and the others already mentioned – Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, Eustace Chapuys, Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Cranmer – Mantel gives us complex portraits of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, the Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, Catherine of Aragon (whom Mantel insists on calling Katherine) and her daughter Princess Mary (later Lady Mary and then later still Queen Mary) as well as others. We also get portraits of the lesser lights, including, in particular, the family and servants of Cromwell, who help him and advise him. Indeed, there seems to be no better writer than Hilary Mantel to achieve this, making her characters, whether famous, lesser or fictitious, live, while showing us the great events of the time.

This is a long book – 650 pages in the hardback version – and it essentially only covers five years, from the final years of Wolsey to the execution of Thomas More. We do not learn of Cromwell’s own downfall, as the book focuses almost entirely on his success and what made him successful. Mantel’s view of history may be wrong – I am certainly not competent to judge – or the other views may be wrong. It does not matter. She has left us with a great historical novel that compares most favourably with that other great historical novel of the Tudor period – George Garrett‘s Death of a Fox. Oh, and in case you were wondering (I was), Thomas Cromwell was the great-great-grand-uncle of Oliver Cromwell.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Fourth Estate