Wolf Hall is a Man Booker Prize winning historical novel which treats the reader to a highly historically-accurate yet fictional account of the rapid rise to power of Henry VIII’s chief advisor Thomas Cromwell. I read it after bemoaning the fact that I had run out of Bernard Cornwell books to read and being lent the book and it’s sequel Bring up the Bodies. There’s no real comparison to be made between the two authors. Hilary Mantel stands in a class of her own. This and it’s sequel are two of the best books I have ever read, and I am currently deep into the final book of the trilogy The Mirror & The Light.
Wolf Hall is set in the period 1500-1535 during the reign of Henry VIII of England, and begins with Cromwell as a young runaway escaping the fists of his abusive father. He goes to France to seek a living as a soldier and by 1527 he has travelled widely across Europe and worked his way up through various manual, clerical, legal and accounting jobs, spending a notably long time in Italy before returning to England.
In London, he is a married man and has three children who he dotes on and is well-placed in the Tudor court as the assistant to the respected royal advisor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. However Cromwell’s wife Liz and his two daughters die, and by 1529 the cardinal falls out of favour with the king due to his inability to annul his supposed illegal marriage to Katherine. However, Cromwell is made of sturdy stock and does not let these events impede his single-minded drive.
While negotiating with the King on the demoted Cardinal’s behalf, Cromwell is summoned to speak to the king’s new love Anne Boleyn. It is with her, as it turns out ill-fated, approval that Cromwell gains favour with the king and eventually is given a seat on the king’s council. His detailed knowledge of all the players at court (their rivalries and their debts) and his ability to negotiate good deals for the king is also not to be underestimated.
The Cardinal is called on to face treason charges and unfortunately dies on the way to London. Cromwell is genuinely saddened by old master’s demise and takes note of those who have mistreated the Cardinal in his days of need. With his lowly beginnings and fierce reputation, Cromwell is a feared wildcard among those appearing to be more noble but actually more likely to be involved in various plots against the crown.
Cromwell continues to work diplomatically to allow Henry to marry Anne. There is pressure from the Pope, and from rival nations Spain and France, and so ambassadors to persuade one way or another to support the annulment and allow the king to remarry. Things are going more or less smoothly until a ex-lover of Anne’s, Henry Percy, declares that he is her legal husband. Though he believes Percy, Cromwell visits him and threatens him into silence.
The king travels to France with his entourage and Anne, and they are married in a private ceremony. Henry finally gets his leg over Anne who has been fighting off his advances until he puts a ring on it. She falls pregnant and the king is delighted. He already has a sickly daughter Mary from his first wife and a bastard son, but longs for a legitimate male heir who can take the throne without any dispute from the powerful families that dominate his court. After their return to England, Anne is crowned Queen in an elaborate ceremony organised by Cromwell.
Cromwell brought in the Act of Supremacy making the king the supreme sovereign power in England so Henry could legally end his own marriage without the approval of the pope. Clerks travel the country getting people to swear an oath of agreement with the Act. As a result of his successes for the king, Moore is given a series of promotions and eventually displaces his rival Stephen Gardiner as Master of Scrolls. Devout and well-respected Catholic, Thomas More, who has tested Cromwell’s patience as much as Gardiner, traitorously refuses to take the oath. He is locked in the Tower of London, and despite Cromwell’s efforts, based on a begrudging respect for him, More cannot be persuaded to take the oath and is executed.
The king’s hopes of a male heir are dashed when Anne gives birth to a girl (who will eventually become Queen Elizabeth I). Anne falls pregnant again, but the child is still-born. The king’s eyes start roaming around other women in the court and his relationship with Anne becomes strained. The book ends with Thomas planning the visits the king’s hunting party will make during their travels out of London. He suggests they visit Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family and including the young Jane Seymour, a maid to Anne who Cromwell is intrigued by. Thus the title is explained and is also further explained by referring to the old saying ‘Man is wolf to man’ which describes the back-stabbing nature of the royal court at the time.
It is a truly brilliant piece of writing with some wonderful character building and insights into the mind of such a seemingly ambitious man who is portrayed in a very sympathetic light. Mantel equally paints Henry and Anne in a distinctly unflattering, warts and all, light which I enjoyed immensely. Sure it’s hard to keep track of all the many characters (many of them called Thomas!) in the book, but no more so than reading a George R. R. Martin book.