2012-11-08 / Opinions

Book Review

Wolf Hall
By Hilar y Mantel
Reviewed by

Thomas Cromwell is not exactly a household name today. In the 1540’s, though, Englishmen knew who he was, and many feared and hated him. He was Councilor to King Henry VIII.

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for this first of a trilogy set in the days when Henry was trying to sever his kingdom from Roman Catholic control.

In her very capable hands, Cromwell is presented with respect and sympathy. Brilliant and devious, he was the son of a violent and abusive father. Not much is historically known about Cromwell’s early life, but Mantel tells a convincing and absorbing story.

In addition to Cromwell and Henry, Mantel presents Queen Katherine and Princess Mary (later to be known as “Bloody”) and Sir Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons.” More dramatically, Anne Boleyn is a character in this historical novel. Cromwell becomes a friend to her as he works for the king.

Cromwell was a soldier in Europe and a successful merchant before he became a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, at the time the second-most powerful man in England. Both of them were clever and honest, at least with each other. But the Cardinal antagonized the volatile Henry and was banished from London. Later, as he was being summoned to the Tower, he died.

Tough and realistic, Cromwell is angry over the fate of his mentor, but he knows that success in his world depends on his relationship with the king. He is a canny politician, able to read people’s real interests and desires. Wolsey has said that he is like a fighting dog, but with fitful charm. His beloved wife Liz and his two daughters die of the plague; he still has his son Gregory, nephew Richard, and protégée Rafe.

Mantel is witty. When Cromwell hears that Thomas More is relating stories of atrocities committed by European troops, he says, “Oh, he would! Listen, soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.”

Entranced by Anne Boleyn, King Henry is trying to convince his wife Katherine to accede to his claim that their marriage was never really legal: “well barbered and curled, tall and still trim from certain angles, and wearing white silk, the king makes his way to his wife’s apartments…. His voice is low, gentle, persuasive, and full of regret.”

He does not persuade Katherine. The international situation is full of danger. Recognizing Cromwell’s financial acumen and political skill, Henry calls him to his side. Beside Henry Tudor is not a very safe place to be. Thomas More finds that out in this book. More is ruthless in his attempt to stamp out the growing Protestant threat, and falls into disfavor with the king.

Even as Cromwell grows in importance and wealth and the king’s affection, he and the reader feel the dangers that won’t be evident until the sequel to this compelling novel.

Wolf Hall is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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