WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2009)
History has never been my strong point. The sum total of what I recall from lessons about Henry VIII at high school are that (a) He had six wives (b) He was obese and (c) He was instrumental in bringing about the dissolution of the monasteries.
This is not exactly a vast sum of knowledge about a reign that lasted almost 38 years until his death in 1547.
Actually, there’s not a massive amount of specific information about the life of the king in this fictionalised account covering the period 1500 – 1535.
The focus of the story is Henry’s fixer in chief Thomas Cromwell who rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in England. Like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction, he’s a a problem solver and master tactician. His diplomacy and keen intellect is such that you can well understand why Henry says “I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents”.
The story begins in Putney when, aged 15, we find Cromwell being beaten to within an inch of his life by his father Walter – a blacksmith and a brewer with a violent streak. Rather than suffer more of the same he leaves the country to gain an alternative education in Italy and France before returning to land on his feet with a post under the wings of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York.
It was rumoured that he knew the New Testament by heart, was fluent in French, German and Latin and it is said that “With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep”. After Wolsey’s fall from favour, Cromwell’s rise is little short of meteoric.
A large part of the novel concerns Henry’s struggle to father a male heir which necessitates the messy business of having his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon declared null and void so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Katherine has produced one daughter and after several miscarriages and in her mid 40s, her child-bearing years seem to be behind her. The stumbling block is that the King needs the approval of the Pope which puts him on a collision course with he Roman Catholic Church which is not inclined to bend the rules so he can get his way.
As a stickler for detail and a man capable of keeping calm in a crisis, Cromwell quickly wins the King’s trust and soon becomes indispensable. He can “arrange his face” to suit any situation and is capable of playing his cards very close to his chest declaring “It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal”.
One of his greatest strengths is that he is not afraid to ruffle feathers or stir controversy, recognising that “virtues are not enough, we must deploy our vices at times”. When hard choices have to be made, there is no place for compassion for the poor, the weak or the innocent.
Contrast him, with the declining fortunes of Thomas More who is depicted as a sad and increasingly marginalised figure. More literally loses his head for not accepting the 1534 Act of Supremacy which made Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England.
As for what liberties Hilary Mantel may have taken with historical truths in the production of this fiction, I am not in a position to say.
Nevertheless, I would venture that the acclaim for this novel would not have been so widespread if she had played too fast and loose with the known facts. Speaking personally, I am grateful to her for bringing this period of history to life in a way that my schoolmaster, all those years ago, was unable to do.