Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel [A Review]

The huge interest and success of Wolf Hall showed that the world is still far from done with the Tudors and appetite for them remains unsated.

Cover image of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

England in the early 16th century is simmering with an uneasy peace. Far better than the bitter War of the Roses period, the Tudor hold of the crown is nevertheless insecure. Though none threaten open civil war, rival claimants to the throne are patiently waiting for an opportunity. The King, though not yet old, is without a male heir and unlikely to sire one from his older wife. The War of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War which preceded it has severely diminished England’s wealth and power and Henry VIII’s influence appears small compared to predecessors and his main rivals, the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, each of whom may turn an eye towards England if they were not so consumed with each other.

It is time to say what England is, her scope and boundaries: not to count and measure her harbour defences and border walls, but to estimate her capacity for self-rule. It is time to say what a king is, and what trust and guardianship he owes his people: what protection from foreign incursions moral or physical, what freedom from the pretensions of those who would like to tell and Englishman how to speak to God.

Though Henry wears the crown, his chief advisor and Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, is arguably in effect the most powerful man in England. A man of grand ambitions, Wolsey has been consumed with his legacy projects of consolidating a number of underperforming monasteries and using funds to build new colleges at Oxford and Ipswich as well as an elaborate tomb for himself – one more befitting a monarch than a humble churchman. But the Cardinal does not seem to appreciate how swiftly things are moving against him.

The King has become increasingly convinced that his marriage to his brother’s widow was against the laws of God; his lack of a male heir a sign of God’s judgement against him. Henry expects Wolsey to extract an annulment from the Pope freeing him to remarry. The Cardinal is in a bind. He knows an annulment is unlikely, but he can’t afford to displease Henry. And Henry’s Queen – Katherine of Aragon – is Emperor Charles V’s aunt and she does not trust the Cardinal. A scriptural argument for Henry’s case can’t override the fact that the Pope is in no position to offend the Emperor whose troops have sacked Rome and taken the Pope prisoner. An annulment and a new marriage could also upset the delicate balance of alliances between Europe’s powers.

The king has a high voice, for a big man, and it rises when he is angry to an ear-throbbing shriek. Are the clergy his subjects, or only half his subjects? Perhaps they are not his subjects at all, for how can they be, if they take an oath to obey and support the Pope? Should they not, he yells, be taking an oath to me?

Meanwhile, the Reformation is spreading in Europe and has reached England’s shores. Henry, raised for a life in the Church before the unexpected death of his older brother, is not sympathetic to the ideas of the Reformists, yet outlawed books and ideas are being discussed secretly between his subjects and are reaching his ears. A break with Rome would leave him free to marry the woman he most desires and to have an heir with her. A dissolution of monasteries could release immense wealth for his kingdom. And as head of his own church, loyalty to him will have considerable overlap with loyalty to God, forcing his domestic enemies out of the shadows with a dangerous choice. This confluence of ideas is beginning to form an irresistible temptation with enormous consequences, yet Henry still considers Reformists to be heretics.

If only there were someone who, acting in Henry’s interests, could navigate this maze and pull off this political and religious revolution. To Henry, it is increasingly clear that the Cardinal is not that man. Henry wants to replace Wolsey with Thomas More, who he hopes will serve his interests better as Lord Chancellor. But More is perhaps even more passionately opposed to Reform than Henry.

But amongst the Cardinal’s staff is a man who has caught the King’s eye. As the Cardinal’s fall from favour begins, Thomas Cromwell steps in to try and restore his master. Cromwell, a lawman and financier, has risen high from his low birth. Rumoured to be the son of a blacksmith from Putney, his origins are murky, but he has established a reputation as a man who can get things done. Though he faces intense animosity from rivals for influence who look down on his low birth, his ability to fearlessly make a disfavoured case before his superiors earns respect.

‘Thomas Cromwell?’ people say. ‘That is an ingenious man. Do you know he has the whole New Testament by heart?’ He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglements that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make.

Cromwell’s leanings are as obscure as his past. Clearly devoutly loyal to the Cardinal, Cromwell in fact has Reformist sympathies. He has even managed to convince the Cardinal to show leniency to some accused of heresy and has given comfort to those he could not save.

Cromwell could choose a path away from the eyes of the Court and the public. Certainly, many high born and ambitious rivals would like to see him disappear from whence he came. There is no shortage of legal work to employ him and the plague of sleeping sickness has devastated his family. But Cromwell cannot abide the vicious treatment of Cardinal Wolsey. The path that will allow him to seek justice for his master will also draw him towards working to resolve the King’s great matter and set England on a path towards Reform.

Wolf Hall is the first novel in a trilogy by Hilary Mantel on the life of Thomas Cromwell. It proved very popular with readers and critics alike, has been adapted for both stage and television and won the 2009 Booker Prize. I’ve been eager to read it for years but held off until the trilogy was completed, preparing myself by reading books on Henry VIII, the Reformation and Cromwell while I waited.

Thomas Cromwell seems an ideal target for the serious historical novelist. First, as a man in power at a pivotal moment, his deeds had enormous influence on subsequent history. Interest in the Tudors has never relented and seems ever relevant. Second, he’s been thoroughly vilified; both before and since his death, both fairly and unfairly, which provides a lot of material to engage readers with. He is a problematic hero, which popular culture has been so fond of in recent decades. Thirdly, not much is known about Cromwell especially his youth and his personal life, which provides scope for certain artistic licence to invent a past for him. Mantel, one feels, saw this potential and sought to fully realise it. In the Author’s Note to the second novel in the Cromwell series, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel says:

This book is of course not about Anne Bolen or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile, Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.

The reinventing of Cromwell opens the novel with Cromwell as a boy suffering at the hands of a violent, abusive father. Mantel imagines the rest of Cromwell’s youth as that of a runaway, a survivor and an opportunist; leaving England for the Continent, looking to serve in any army that will take him, finding himself in Italy where his talent for numbers, interpreting the law and making deals gives him a career and a real chance of wealth and independence.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is not portrayed as the Machiavellian agent contemporaries and history has often judged him as, but as a hard worker, sincerely trying to serve his Cardinal and his King as best as he can and while trying to ignore the hatred others direct towards him. Mirroring the reinvention of Cromwell is the depiction of Thomas More. More’s strict adherence to his principles even when faced with his execution has seen him remembered as a saint and martyr. Here those same qualities show him less favourably as an unforgiving zealot. Mantel’s Cromwell is reasonable, amicable, a mediator and even comforts and gives selfless advice to rivals and enemies like More and Stephen Gardiner who mostly display only their intolerance in their hatred towards him.

Cromwell and More are not the only historical characters in the novel that Mantel has an interesting take on. Mary Boleyn can be very familiar; joking, laughing, divulging. Jane Seymour is very meek and mild. Then, of course, there is Anne Boleyn.

One of those afternoons when I told my king a little, and he told me a lot: how he shakes with desire when he thinks of Anne, how he has tried other women, tried them as an expedient to take the edge off lust, so that he can think and talk and act as a reasoning man, but how he has failed with them… A strange admission, but he thinks it justifies him, he thinks it verifies the rightness of his pursuit, for I chase but one hind, he says, one strange deer timid and wild, and she leads me off the paths that other men have trod, and by myself into the depths of the wood.

I found it interesting that, for a historical novel, there is not a lot of historical scene-setting. The novel relies heavily on its characters, plot and dialogue. There is not a lot of ‘colour’ to give you a sense of the period – descriptions of buildings and towns, clothes and customs, etc. The language is, perhaps thankfully, not in keeping with the period and perfectly coherent to the twenty-first century reader. Instead, these sorts of passages, normally abundant in historical fiction, are very restrained in Wolf Hall. It probably needs to be, the novel is long enough without it and I don’t think it suffers from the absence of these pieces. Instead, it almost aids the relevance of the novel. It shows the universality of the machinations among those with power and influence; of the pursuit of power and self-interest and the use of larger ideologies, religion and nationalism, to justify it.

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of. He feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings is slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought and poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.

I don’t mean to say the novel lacks more than plot, character and dialogue. The ‘colouring’ in Wolf Hall is of a different style and type from most historical fiction and is difficult to describe, but is probably some of the best writing in the book.

The highlight of Wolf Hall for me were certain key scenes, often with Cromwell and one other person in conversation. Some of these are wonderfully imagined. Not just scenes with Cromwell and other key power players – Henry, More, Anne Boleyn – with whom the conversation is always loaded with tension and consequence, but even conversations with Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys and the artist Hans Holbein. It is why I am not surprised the novel has been adapted for the stage, given that so much of the novel rests on these set piece scenes with key players and arresting dialogue.

One of the most noticeable negatives of the book is a certain stylistic choice by Mantel. In scenes with more than one person in conversation, Mantel often omits using a name for reference to accompany the spoken words, instead using “he said” or “he says”. In these instances, the “he” is always Cromwell, but it takes a while to get used to and your first instinct is to wonder ‘who said that?’ when you read it. Also, when Cromwell is speaking, she shifts from his spoken words to his inner thoughts and sometimes back again, within the same paragraph. This too can catch you out as you momentarily think he said those words aloud. I think this is something other readers had an issue with too.

Overall, in a more general sense, I was a little disappointed with Wolf Hall. I liked it but not as much as I had hoped to. It is difficult to pinpoint why. Maybe I placed my expectations too high, having waited a long time to read it. When I think of the parts I enjoyed most, maybe I would have benefited from more of that, more tension leading up to them, or something I could relate to.

I am a very patient reader though. My feelings about this first novel in the series should be considered tentative only. I instead keep assurances in reserve until I read the other two novels.

You can find my reviews of the other novels in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy here.

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