Wolf Hall (2009)

by Hilary Mandel

As chief minister to Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell masterminded the Church of England’s break with the Pope, the dissolution of monasteries and seizure of their wealth, and the execution of former lord chancellor Thomas More. Authors from Shakespeare (Henry VIII) to Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons) have portrayed him as a villain.

Not Hilary Mandel. In her Man Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, she manages to make Cromwell, if not heroic, at least wise and decent. How? By removing religious motivation and portraying him as pragmatic and reasonable, wanting a more secular country ruled by London, not Rome. By giving him a happy home populated by nieces, nephews, wards, and content servants. By contrasting him with Thomas More, the era’s other leading political figure, who she portrays as a cruel murderer of religious dissenters.

Mandel’s novel opens with Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, fleeing an abusive father. She skims over his youth on the Continent, where he acquired a myriad of skills, and picks up the story with the start of Cromwell’s rise to power as an an aide to Cardinal Wolsey, then lord chancellor. Wolsey dies out of favor because he could not get Pope Clement to agree to annulling Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell joins Henry’s court and becomes the king’s most powerful aide. Cromwell succeeds in clearing the way for Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn — not by getting the Pope’s permission but by writing the law making Henry head of the English church.

Wolf Hall ends in 1535 with the story unfinished. Anne Boleyn is still alive, and Henry will marry four more times. The title Wolf Hall refers to where Henry is headed at the end of the book, the family seat of wife number three, Jane Seymour, a sure tipoff that there would be a sequel.


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