I approached Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with great trepidation, and decided to read it only because of its Booker shortlisting. Aside from the length, my concern was the same one I have for most historical novels: that for full appreciation of the book, a good deal of background knowledge will be required of me that I don’t have. For example, would it be a problem that before reading about Wolf Hall, I’d never heard of Thomas Cromwell? Yes and no.
Wolf Hall covers, with a little fringing around the edges, half a dozen years in the reign of Henry VIII, as he flexes his constitutional muscle to break with the Catholic Church – partly because he wants its money and assets in England for the Crown, but mostly because he wants a male heir to prevent another war of succession. His wife Katherine of Aragon cannot give him a son – at least that’s how he views it – so he wants to end his marriage and father a child with Anne Boleyn. (“If only he wanted something simple,” says his Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey. “The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.”) However it is not Henry who is the central character, but Thomas Cromwell, his fixer: “the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell. … He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell appears in every scene of the book, referred to most of the time simply as “he”, which is an effective technique in training the reader to his viewpoint.
So, included in the fringes are Cromwell’s youth – son to the violent Walter, and subsequent runaway – and his quick learning. “You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.” Cromwell’s cunning is present at a young age, when we see how he escapes from England to France:
He sees three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth. A port officer gives them trouble about their documents, shouting into their faces. He lounges behind the clerk, pretending to be a Lowland oaf, and tells the merchants by holding up his fingers what he thinks is a fair bribe. ‘Please,’ says one of them, in effortful English to the clerk, ‘will you take care of these English coins for me? I find them surplus.’ Suddenly the clerk is all smiles. The Lowlanders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, ‘The boy is with us.’
Cromwell begins his journey to Henry’s court as aide to Cardinal Wolsey. Initially a favourite of the king, instrumental in the dissolution of the monasteries and the crushing of heresies such as those who would translate the Bible into English, Wolsey “never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting, shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities.” However his power begins to exceed him: “[Wolsey] used to say, ‘The King will do such-and-such.’ Then he began to say, ‘We will do such-and-such.’ Now he says, ‘This is what I will do.'” He is accused of “running a country within the country” but the king is loyal to him until it becomes clear that Wolsey cannot deliver the “good verdict” from the Pope that he wants: an annulment of his marriage. Wolsey is doomed. Cromwell remains loyal (“What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold”) but is determined not to “go down with the Cardinal” – the only thing that Thomas Cromwell believes in, it seems, is Thomas Cromwell.
He ingratiates himself with Henry – the scenes where they come to know one another are among the most electrifying in the book – and becomes a councillor; Henry, in his turn, becomes Cromwell’s second surrogate father after Wolsey, and Cromwell is utterly invested in his life of ‘service': “I shall not be like Henry Wyatt and say, now I am retiring from affairs. Because what is there, but affairs?” He is not popular with everyone, as he drafts the Act in Restraint of Appeals (…this realm of England is an Empire…). “Until now Master Cromwell’s talent was for moneylending, but now he finds he has a talent for legislation too – if you want a new law, just ask him.”
This is the spine of the story, but there is much commotion around the edges, and so many characters that, even with frequent recourse to the five-page dramatis personae, I never did work out the difference between Lords Norfolk and Suffolk, or several of the other cuckolds, in-laws and court hangers-on. My usual weakness as a reader is attention to detail while overlooking the larger themes, but here even the detail was difficult to grasp at times, though the telling – sometimes serious, sometimes playful – was always admirable. Mantel makes the reader work but does not withhold rewards, and the court scenes, forever at the edge of my knowledge, trod such an expert line that ignorance acted to stimulate my interest rather than freeze it. This is a huge story, after all, of England remaking itself, and the conflict between monarchy and clergy, from Thomas More to Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. When Henry gets his ‘divorce’ (sorry to spoil it for you):
Warham shuffles up the to king. ‘Henry,’ the Archbishop says, ‘I have seen you promote within your own court and council persons whose principals and morals will hardly bear scrutiny. I have seen you deify your own will and appetite, to the sorrow and scandal of Christian people. I have been loyal to you, to the point of violation of my own conscience. I have done much for you, but now I have done the last thing I will ever do.’
“The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island,” we are told. But there is plenty of destruction back home too. When Anne is pregnant, with what Henry hopes will be a son, “he is the beginning, the start of something, the promise of another country.” Wolf Hall gives us the politics and the personalities – even though the invention of those personalities must be a matter of some speculation, and not for an historical ignoramus like me to rely on. The old country still exists, and Mantel relishes the opportunity to pile on details of the dirt and disease rife at the time, with even those closest to Cromwell succumbing to ‘the sweat': “one day walking and talking and next day cold as stones, tumbled into their Thames-side graves and dug in beyond the reach of the tide.”
The re-formation of England the book describes (“a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people”) is inextricably linked with the Reformation running in parallel. Henry moves from crushing heresy against Rome to creating a church in his own image. The issues that exercise the reformers include literal interpretation of biblical scriptures: the origin of Purgatory, the transubstantiation of bread and wine. Cromwell finds that he cannot always rely on the Bible: “he knows the whole of the New Testament by heart, but find a text: find a text for this.” Similarly, Wolf Hall denies the possibility of knowing everything from a line-by-line reading of a book. “Some of these things are true,” we are told,” and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.”