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.
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.