I don’t like historical novels. Especially ones involving the Tudors and Henry VIII and even more so after the rubbish that was ‘The Tudors’ on television over the last few years. So, it was with great trepidation that I bought, read and then succumbed to Hilary Mantels wonderful book, Wolf Hall; The story of Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister to Henry VIII who oversaw the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and who was widely hated in his lifetime.
He is as unlikely an historical hero as you’ll meet. Throughout history he has been portrayed as a corrupt proto-Stalinist. In Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’ he is a derisory sideshow, in ‘A Man for All Seasons’ he is depicted as a villain who hounds Thomas More and then there is the Hans Holbein portrait of him (who is a character in the book): a man in dark robes with a shrewd, unfriendly face, holding a folded paper like an upturned dagger. He looks, as Hilary Mantel has him say in her new novel, “like a murderer”.
Mantel made me admire this man, this pen pusher, lobbyist, political genius and back room strategist. He is a fascinating character, his rise to power from street urchin to Royal courtier. The book starts with his early life – which Mantel based on scant evidence – as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (he doesn’t know his own date of birth). His early life is quickly ended when the action of the book cuts to 1527, with Cromwell back in England, “a little over forty years old” and a trusted agent of Cardinal Wolsey. His previous experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands are dealt with in the occasional flashback: as soldier, trader and accountant for a Florentine bank and murderer with a penchant for Italian painting.
Mantel’s Cromwell is a worldly figure, capable of much; he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Fluent in many languages, learned, witty and thoughtful, he’s also an intimidating physical presence; Wolsey fondly compares him to “one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes”. This makes him an ideal emissary for Wolsey’s project of liquidating some smaller monasteries to fund a school and an Oxford college. But self-advancement isn’t Cromwell’s only motive. He’s disgusted by the waste and superstition he encounters, and takes a materialist view of relics and indulgences. The feudal mindset of Wolsey’s rival grandees seems equally outdated to him: jibes at his lowly origins bounce off his certainty that noble blood and feats of arms now count for less than lines of credit and nicely balanced books.
The first half of the novel, built around Wolsey’s fall from power, details Cromwell’s domestic setup at Austin Friars, his home, and introduces the major players in Tudor politics. Without sinking the reader into the tedium of research Mantel describes a surprisingly modern world, one we can all imagine. This ability to blend research and a richly imagined Tudor world creates a wonderful backdrop to the cut and thrust of the politics of the day.
The book revolves around the separation from Rome, the reformation, Henry VIIIs wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More who comes across as an intellectual, cold, unpleasant man. The central figures – the Boleyn sisters, Catherine of Aragon, the young Mary Tudor, the king himself – are beautifully brought to life, as are Cromwell’s wife, Liz Wykys, and Cardinal Wolsey.
Of course the biggest problem Mantel has is the end of the story for we all know how it ends before we begin; Anne is beheaded and Henry goes on to have more wives. Her solution is to stop abruptly with a gesture toward the future and all that the future holds. It would not be giving away too much to say that Wolf Hall, a place never visited but often referred to, is the home of one Jane Seymour, and that is where Cromwell is bound as the novel comes to an end.
With no dramatic resolution Mantel lets history and ‘What happened next’ run its course and in our last glimpse of him, Cromwell’s ascendancy endures.
However, to all those that don’t know how his life ended it is unfortunately a most unpleasant one. After brokering two more royal weddings and overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell was executed by Henry in 1540 for failing to provide a suitable bride. His boiled head was left on a spike on London Bridge, turned emphatically away from the city he loved.
Mantel is writing a sequel and I can’t wait for its publication. This is a wonderful book and I strongly recommend it to everybody.
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