Wolf Hall is a work of historical fiction. It is meticulously researched, but Hilary Mantel has allowed herself ample space, in which she has thoroughly personalised the figure of Thomas Cromwell.
A divisive figure amongst historians, Mantel has created a personable, sophisticated ‘renaissance man’, humanistic and reflective. His ambition and his successes seem almost incidental to the story, and inevitable considering his intellectual attributes.
The book is set in the reign of Henry VIII, and Cromwell’s story is told from Cromwell’s point of view. It also incorporates a series of flashbacks, and tracks Cromwell’s rise from apprentice blacksmith to his brutish father, to being the King’s trusted Advisor and Counsellor.
Hilary Mantel has produced a narrative which allows us to get to know the great men and women of the time. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, the Boleyn family, and that of the Duke of Norfolk are fleshed out credibly, if not totally accurately. Mantel’s Cromwell is an engaging man, and many of his exchanges are light-hearted, and his moments of reflection are self-aware, almost modern.
He moves further into King Henry’s orbit as his career progresses; from vagabond, to lowly soldier, then a banker, a canny lawyer; his skills bring him to the attention of powerful men, until he is recruited to serve Cardinal Wolsey as his trusted advisor, and confidante.
After Wolsey’s demise, the King ‘recruits’ him. He will spend the rest of his life in the King’s service. His musings are of matters as diverse as the King’s appetites, sexual and otherwise; the King’s desire for a son and heir; how to channel money to the treasury, from monasteries he closes in a search for efficiencies. How to keep England solvent.
He discovers that Henry’s great obsession is to find a way to divorce his current wife, and to replace her with a wife who will provide him with a son.
The book engages with the nature of power, and class, with King Henry’s journey from attractive and well-educated companion, to a cruel and tyrannous ruler, where many of his courtiers, and several of his wives, are cast aside, many of them executed.
The transformation is gradual, and the mastery of Mantel’s writing is in the command of the simultaneous strands of momentous change which Cromwell somehow navigates successfully.
As Henry ages Cromwell is tasked with, amongst other things, the break of the English Church from Rome, England’s relations with Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. He is also tasked with managing the rise of protestant sentiment, especially after Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Church’s corrupt practices.
He becomes the instrument through whom Henry discards and finds wives, and the ‘fixer’ for courtiers, their wives and children; the closing of monasteries and the giving and taking of financial support; he even ensures that the King’s team prevails at jousting tournaments.
His growing knowledge of Henry’s power and of his nature terrifies him, but he is powerless to resist. He is shown as being familiar with Machiavelli’s master work, The Prince. It meshes with Henry’s reputation throughout Europe, as a ruthless tyrant. Nonetheless, Cromwell continues to accumulate property and riches.
Cromwell is portrayed as a basically decent man, who reflects on the often misguided motives of those he is forced to correct. To those who have wandered down the path of overt heresy, he attempts to provide a path to safety; he is disappointed when the help he offers is shrugged off.
His own beliefs are those he knows to be safe. He is not a man to risk his life for a theological dispute.
He is not in a position to defy the King, and so he carries out his orders, sometimes reluctantly. He likes Anne Boleyn for a time, but he does not hesitate to contrive a case against her. He is the ultimate pragmatist, and yet we are on-side with his struggles.
The rich texture of the times, and Cromwell’s place near the centre, is conveyed with power, humour, and a sense of gradually escalating doom.
The writing is powerful, precise and compelling. Mantel has total command of the time, the language, the theological disputes, the families in play against each other, the political realities, the pivotal roles and Cromwell’s progress to the highest positions in the Law, in parliamentary politics, and in the Church.
Her understanding of the relationships between the crowned heads of Europe is also outstanding, as is her depiction of the Tudor family, and Henry’s dealings with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
If you have an interest in history, politics, or religion, then this book is for you. It is the first in a trilogy, and it is a fabulous read.