Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Wolf Hall.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel beautifully captures the personality of the base-born Thomas Cromwell, confidant to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the perfect foil to the political field around the king during his “Great Matter”: the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Of precise legal mind, Mantel’s Cromwell is a patient man who compartmentalizes information, collating numbers and deeds, taking the measure of king, would-be queen and those who do the business of England. Cromwell develops an affection for a petulant, demanding Henry, a clever Anne Boleyn and even the adamantly Catholic Thomas More, but never forgets the damage inflicted on the Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, in his fall from grace.
While the battle between the king, Rome and the heretical notions of new sects seethes, Cromwell gathers facts and figures, understanding the relationship between commerce and government as well as the unbridled passions of ambition and greed. Yet perhaps the most fascinating element of this portrayal is Cromwell’s humanity, his love for those he shelters in his home, the young minds he trains, and the wife, sisters and daughters who soften his heart. Faced with determined enemies, Cromwell remains fair-minded and dispassionate, reason dominating his emotions as history delivers men to their fates, the heat near the throne burning more than one man in the quest for power and favor.
To the envy of royal courtiers, the lowborn Cromwell holds the secrets of Henry and Anne, a fact not surprising in the context of the man’s talents. Mantel’s Cromwell has many facets, from his troubled, violent childhood to the reasonable advocate of the law who understands the intricacies of the judicial system and the nature of his enemies at court. Thomas Cromwell facilitates the process through which a king may have his way in the face of the Church’s resistance. The lawyer’s unique perspective reveals the day-to-day dramas of Henry’s court at this pivotal time in English history, the connections of finance and commerce and the politics of power, whether Tudor, Howard or Seymour.
Cromwell seems impervious to the petty machinations of Henry’s advisors, but of course he is not. In fact, Cromwell is conversant with humility in the best sense, ever balancing his ledgers, both material and personal, a man of keen intelligence and loyalty to those he serves. Schooled in the ways of the world by Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell’s lack of religious pretension is refreshing at a time when emotionalism and fanaticism often color religious debate in matters of critical importance, the clash between king and Church, dogma and choice.
Cromwell savors the particularity of language, words spoken and unspoken. His approach to reasoned debate is seen most clearly in the long philosophical contretemps with Thomas More, who will not bend to the king’s will, a man filled with a rancid pride, his avid pursuit of heretics fueling the prelate’s own fanaticism. Ever compassionate, Cromwell attempts to reason with his moral adversary, who had no pity for the ailing Wolsey or for the heretics he tortured and burned at the stake. To the end, More takes refuge in judgment and contempt. But Cromwell is Henry’s man as he was Wolsey’s, the law his guide, patience his weapon.
Many accounts have been written of this extraordinary period in English history from the perspective of the major players, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, but I can’t think of one more satisfying than Wolf Hall, with its vivid and flawed characters, the lawyer ever the pragmatist, the sane voice of reason as Henry stampedes through Church and country, Thomas Cromwell at his side.