Hilary Mantel’s epic tome (first in a trilogy) is fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell and history of the early Tudor period. It’s a gripping read, although my stamina waned in the long second half of its 650 pages, where Thomas has many dramatic changes of fortune and direction, and events start to pile up.
Cromwell rose from humble, working class origins to become one of Henry VIII’s principal advisers, through assiduous application of his intelligence, worldly experience and all the Macchiavellian arts of a royal courtier of that brutal and tumultuous period of English history. Missteps could be fatal.
Thomas is certainly portrayed more sympathetically than the ruthless, unscrupulous character presented in Man for All Seasons. Mantel spent five years studying period sources and writing, clearly developing a more nuanced and complex perspective on Cromwell and his arch-rival Sir Thomas More.
The narrator convincingly inhabits Cromwell’s mind, and the consequent story-telling is an exciting way to imagine events and deepen your knowledge of the period, which of course centred on Henry’s efforts to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the Pope, and to marry Anne Boleyn.
The Pope’s pressure tactics through his English cardinals and eventual refusal of annulment leads to England’s schism with the Roman Catholic Church. The intertwined relations with European powers and the arrival of new Lutheran ideas in Catholic England are subtly portrayed. Hard to believe really that one man’s partner preference upsets the whole apple cart. And of course Henry got a taste for divorce, and became a serial offender.
A minor criticism is that Mantel uses ‘he’ for Cromwell, even when others have just spoken. So, I was unsure sometimes who was speaking or indeed thinking, and had to check back. But, maybe going with the flow is the answer.
Wolf Hall is the name of the manor house of the Seymour family, whose Jane later becomes Henry’s third wife. Apparently it also serves as a reminder that ‘man is wolf to man’. Today we might say ‘dog eat dog’, which certainly described the Tudor royal court and it’s habitués.
So, recommended reading, and a stimulating way to get your history. I will certainly get around to the sequels.