Wolf Hall

 Hilary Mantel

Picador USA

He kneels before him. Wolsey raises his hand, and then, as if he has forgotten what he’s doing, lets it hover in midair. He says, “Thomas, I am not ready to meet God.”

He looks up, smiling. “Perhaps God is not ready to meet you.”

                                              from Wolf Hall


Rich historical novel gives fresh slant on battle for the soul of Tudor England


As Mark Twain noted, all history is written in prejudiced ink. It just depends on who is telling the story.

Wolf Hall, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, England’s top literary award, takes the well-known story of King Henry VIII’s attempt to get an heir (read: son) to succeed him on the throne and secure the Tudor reign.

But author Hilary Mantel gives the story a fresh slant by telling it from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, one of the great bad guys in English history, he who was responsible for beheading the “man for all seasons,” the saintly Sir Thomas More (consecrated by the Church in 1935.)

In Mantel’s telling, there are no saints. It is a brutal, ruthless world where king and pope are battling for the soul of England.

This rich historical novel assumes the reader’s familiarity with the politics and the players of the time—the king, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Cranmer—and the court intrigue, plotting and scheming by the different parties.

Perhaps not surprising, coming from Cromwell’s perspective, the book provides an unflattering portrait of More, who is seen here as a merciless and intolerant burner of heretics—“I always forget, he thinks, how More neither pities himself nor takes pity on others.” (Recommended reading: The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd offers a more balanced view that shows the man to be neither saint nor villain but a product of his time.)

Cromwell himself is portrayed as a fixer. His job is to do the bidding of his master of the moment—first, Cardinal Wolsey, then the king. Eminently practical, he seems to be a man without any principles—except loyalty—at a time when other men were willing to die, or more preferably, to kill and torture for their religious principles. In the company of such fanatics, a man without principles seems almost sane and humane by comparison.

And torture there certainly was. One wonders at the mind that could design such hideous means of bringing a sinner back to God. It makes Dick Cheney’s waterboarding look like child’s play (granted, an evil child but still…)

Finally, we are left with history’s love of irony: all this fuss and bother, burnings and beheadings, to get a male heir, only to end up with a daughter on the throne—Elizabeth I—who became the greatest of the English monarchs.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.