Friday, December 28, 2012

Those Tudors Are At It Again! "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Of all the families that have made up the last thousand years of English dynastic history, the five Tudor kings and queens who reigned from 1485-1603 are the most popular subjects for popular history and fiction.  Hilary Mantel's popular and award-winning books centering on the turbulent years of King Henry VIII as seen from the perspective of one of his most powerful ministers, Thomas Cromwell, has no need of further kudos from me, except to say if anyone is interested in historical fiction and especially the political, religious and economic turmoil of the Reformation period of northern Europe, these are books to seek out.        
I just started reading the second part of her trilogy on the middle years of Henry VIII's reign (roughly 1529-1540) called "Bring Up the Bodies"  It is the first book, "Wolf Hall", that I am concerned with right now.   The main character in the first and second books is Thomas Cromwell, a man who has a long rise  from being the son of a butcher and expatriate foreign mercenary, Italian banking clerk,  and wool merchant in the Low Countries. He leaves England because his father has an ugly temper and is trying to kill him with his fists and his boots.  It's likely he has already killed Thomas mother either through violence or neglect.  Thomas has decided he doesn't want to kill his father Walter because he would be hanged and he figures fifteen years of age is too young to be hanged.  So he scrapes enough money together through a rigged card game and goes off around the year 1500 to seek his fortune in Europe.  
His cosmopolitan learning, military experience, and his flair for picking up several languages and managing and summing up people either through kindness or being a stern but fair taskmaster make him a formidable foe and worthy ally.  He works his way up into the power centers of Tudor England, first in the household of one of Henry VII's chief ministers and then as a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, a subtle-minded power player also originally from a low station in life.  After the powerful Wolsey's fall in 1530, due in large part to his inability to get Henry VIII a divorce from  Pope Clement so he can ditch his first wife Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell's star continues to rise despite his patron's fall.  (Although Thomas Cromwell  never does anything against Wolsey to get ahead even after he is banned from court and his rich estates.)  Henry gives him all sorts of stations in his patronage system so by the end of the book he is Chancellor  and on his way to becoming a full-fledged earl.  

Thomas Cromwell (1485?--1540), painted by Hans Holbein.

The other big men at court, the Duke of Norfolk and the Percys and Seymours and Boleyns that make up Henry's entourage of pedigreed nobility, don't know what to make of this jumped-up meteor of a man.  They ridicule him as a butcher's son or an "Italian".
  But as long as Cromwell keeps making money for Henry and can speed his marriage to his next wife, that cunning and coy "virgin" Anne Boleyn, Cromwell along with Wolsey replacement, Thomas Cramner, continue to prosper. It is a lucrative and dangerous game; Henry VIII has many enemies in continental Europe, not just the Pope but the Emperor Charles V who is Katherine's nephew and their one living offspring, the   Princess Mary's cousin.  If Henry can't get a male heir--the only solid and then legitimate way to pass along power in these backward political days--the country could be plunged back into the dynastic wars that made up decades of fighting and dying and the loss of English power.  He needs a son and Katherine is blamed for not giving it to him and he wants the marriage declared illegitimate because she might have had conjugal relations with his older brother, the long dead Prince Arthur. 
For this cause, and to consolidate power and gain the lands and treasuries of the Catholic Churches and monasteries for his royal treasury, Henry is willing not only risk war with Catholic powers in Europe while at  the same time trying to stem the tide of the more legitimate forces of Reformation coming from Protestant forces in Germany and England who want all people to be able to read the Gospels in their own native language, men like William Tyndale and his followers who, if caught, get burned at the stake or tortured by that martyr-to-be, Sir Thomas More.
More in the book is not much like he is depicted in Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons".  Here he is a hair-shirt wearing intellectual with ice water in  his veins not above practicing and encouraging torture , not a noble figure who will not bend himself to Henry's 1533 Act of Supremacy (making himself the head of the Church of England) solely out of convictions.  Cromwell and Cramner plead with More and Cardinal Fisher to sign the document, but, unlike Bolt's play, More especially comes off more like a sly lawyer and semantic trickster. Cromwell comes across as the modern man, urging him to take the certainty of a restored position with the King, and a return to his family, over the risk of hell-fire.  In this way Mantel has made Thomas Cromwell more the man of this season.                 
  1. Cromwell's management style might be summed up in this exchange in the novel: 

    "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;"

    I confess to being a lover of this kind of history.  I have always enjoyed novels that are grounded in  real events of the past, more so than science-fiction. Of course, Mantel must be making dialogue up here mostly, nobody followed Cromwell around like Boswell followed Doctor Samuel Johnson,  but she also has a keen eye and ear for details and her study and ability to make language sound archaic without it actually being  so makes the work a breeze to read for those who enjoy historical fiction.     One reason to like Cromwell is that he is a man who hates war, having fought in the pay of the kings and dukes  of France and Italy as a younger man.  War to him is simply looting, death and can lead to bankruptcy for his king and he is not afraid to tame Henry's passions for it.  

    Another example comes from Cromwell's assessment of the Reformation and the new tide that is sweeping across Europe and, despite prohibitions laid down by his King, touching English society as well.    

  2. "Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”" 

    This book does not spare the household details of life in Tudor England.  We get ample time in Cromwell's  main estate, Austin Friars , as well as the offices used around London for government and business affairs.  Cromwell comes off as a man willing to help others, a man who remembers his own unpleasant upbringing and wants to spare others the pain he suffered.  If he can see a spark of gumption in someone, as in the case of a small boy in Calais or a poor scribe willing to work, if they just look like they can be useful, he helps them.  He is also a man who knows suffering as an adult, as we are reminded when he loses two of his daughters in one fell swoop to the recurrence of  plague, an all-too frequent event in those days. Other maladies like the "sweating sickness" could carry away thousands a year.    
    Indeed, coupled with the dramatic invention, there is a lot that Hilary Mantel brings to this work to make it both a page turned and excellent tutorial on one man's climb to power in very interesting times.   


  1. You write such interesting reviews Doug. They always make me want to read what you are recommending. Now if only I had the time to spend reading as much as I would like!

  2. Thanks Lia. I don't get to as many books as I would like to, either. I'm a slow reader, but "Wolf Hall" despite its length this one had me feeling right in the story and I couldn't wait to start the next one. That's rare for me.

  3. Hi Doug, good review. I'm quite partial to a good historical novel myself
    Just came by to wish you a Happy New Year, what ever you have planned for tonight i hope its good.

    1. Thanks, Loretta, and a Happy New Year to you, too!