Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 17, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy: recapping and anticipating

Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy: recapping and anticipating

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Oh, for a time when reading a novel about England breaking with Europe could be called escapism. The final triune of Hilary Mantel’s sensational Wolf Hall Trilogy may have been delayed until 2019, but it is set to strike with prescience. If it comes close to matching the previous two installments; Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, it will be a triumph. For such a complex work of historical fiction, the crux is brilliantly simple. Mantel takes three paintings by artist Hans Holbein, depicting Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, and King Henry VIII, and redefines these characters that have, for so long, been subject to historical cliché. Henry is no longer cruel and brutish, but impotent and childish: prone to simpering romantics. Thomas More is privileged with not only the most flattering portrait, but also the most flattering portrayal in history. He was canonized by Pius XI in 1935, a decade in which the Catholic Church was, admittedly, complicit in far greater crimes, both in Germany and Croatia. More’s magnum opus, Utopia, is still fawned upon by the likes of Terry Eagleton as “astonishingly radical”, but Mantel sifts through the dust of history, identifying him for the torturing fanatic that he was. By contrast the portrait of Cromwell, in history and on canvas, is waxen and sinister. In Wolf Hall Cromwell himself observes to his son that Hans has made him “look like a murderer”. In surprise his son replies, “didn’t you know?”. The relationship between More and Cromwell defines the first book of the trilogy. By the end, More is revealed to be a fundamentalist, not a radical. Cromwell is empathetic though pragmatic, seamlessly moving between the wings and centre stage.

Mantel sifts through the dust of history, identifying [Thomas Moore] for the torturing fanatic that he was

The trilogy narrates the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, from ordinary beginnings as a Blacksmith’s son in Putney, to the highs of King Henry VIII’s court, and on to what we know must be an untimely end. Mantel presents events as though on stage, and indeed the curtain is barely raised before Cromwell’s wife and two daughters are killed by the ‘sweating sickness’. King Henry, though brave at the joust, was terrified of this illness. It is the sweating sickness, rising from London gutters, that results in a fateful visit to Wolf Hall by the Court where Jane Seymour awaits. Having served as a solider and a banker on the continent, Cromwell returns to England as a man “at home in a courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury”. When Anne Boleyn finds herself in the dock for treason, in the closing moments of Bring Up the Bodies, it is that last talent that comes to the fore. Cromwell finds employment as the right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, yet can do nothing as the king, corrupted by his affair with Anne, has Wolsey hounded to death up and down the muddy length of England.

Like a Greek play, most of this violence, be it heretics on the wrack or papal wars, occurs off stage

Cromwell burrows into the king’s inner circle, becoming the most powerful commoner in the history of England. Despite his love for Wolsey, he is a reformist; keeping a smuggled copy of William Tindale’s English translation bible, at a time when to read the bible in anything but Latin could get you immolated at the stake. It is the simmering violence of the English Reformation that lends a vivid energy to the trilogy. Like a Greek play, most of this violence, be it heretics on the wrack or papal wars, occurs off stage. Throughout this, More, ever the fundamentalist, grows surer by the day, whilst for Cromwell, “the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘purgatory’. Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns’. Show me where it says ‘pope’”. In this short phrase, the stage is set for the schism that will tear Christendom apart. Tindale is eventually trapped and burnt by More, but not before having his gospels mockingly prefixed ‘Printed in Utopia’. History’s unjust veneration of More is prophesised by Cromwell, in a rare loss of composure, when he castigates him: “you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and none of your martyr’s gratification”. Here we have the fundamental truth that martyrdom will always be considered courageous. In reality, it is often evasion, even cowardice. The real struggle is fought by those not committed to history’s selective memory.

Henry is no longer cruel and brutish, but impotent and childish

Spiritually and in the material-world, Cromwell believes the papal church has become bloated. In a characteristic blend of ideology and pragmatism, he identifies the relics, monks and nuns in their monasteries as the solution to the penury of the English people, as-well-as their cash-strapped king. While talking to a horrified Bishop Gardiner, he observes that the “sheep farmers are grown so great that the little man is knocked off his acres”, and that the “plowman can take up the book… England can be otherwise”. The sheep farmers may well be an illusion to the bishops rearing their flocks, and the threat of a literate peasantry – the promise of Tindale’s bible – would result in an obvious democratisation of knowledge. Sadly, it was Gardiner who outlived Cromwell, becoming an enforcer for Queen Mary’s draconian brand Catholicism. With regard to the monasteries, Mantel once again turns history on its head. Instead of noble abbeys defiled by philistines, we are given a kind of Tudor wealth redistribution. The author skirts cliché with the guile of Tom Cromwell himself. Whole books have been written on his ‘Machiavellian Statecraft’, but in Wolf Hall, we see Cromwell lampoon The Prince, for its attempts to make an art form out of palace intrigue.

More than his fickle relationship with matrimony, it is the pettiness of Henry that strikes the reader

Throughout the second book, it is Anne Boleyn who connives and schemes, becoming ever more paranoid as she fails to produce a male heir. With Henry’s interest in Jane blossoming, the Seymours begin to rise, aided by the indomitable Cromwell, who has been made an enemy of the Boleyns. A proponent of Tindale’s gospel, Anne is loathed by the old families of England, who see Jane as their route to reclaiming power. The absurdity of Henry’s hunt for an heir swells, as he writes insipid verse in a careful, childish hand, and presses it into Cromwell’s, to be delivered to Jane. In one instance, the King bequeaths her a locket with both Katherine and Anne’s initials scratched out. More than his fickle relationship with matrimony, it is the pettiness of Henry that strikes the reader. In the first book, he reclaims the furs that he gave Katherine before their estrangement, once she is dead. Even when he wants rid of Anne, he forces the Spanish ambassador to bow before her. Whilst Anne initially thinks this is done to protect her honour, we soon realise that it is done to assuage Henry’s. Mantel continuously emphasises his fabled stature – seemingly a family trait – with his petty, infantile manhood. Interpret manhood as you will.

…martyrdom will always be considered courageous. In reality, it is often evasion, even cowardice 

Either in a rare moment of personal pettiness, or out of consistent pragmatism, Cromwell uses Anne’s fall from power to liquidate the courtiers who had mocked the cardinal, and hampered his own relationship with the king. By necessity he finds himself aligned with England’s old families; the Seymours, Poles and Plantagenets, who think him a useful but heretical commoner. He in turn thinks they belong to a time when, “all maids were fair maids and all knights were gallant and life was simple and violent and usually brief”. The final instalment of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will surely see Cromwell vying with these families for power. It is a struggle we know he is destined to lose. Jane Seymour’s luck in giving birth to a boy will cement the influence of Wolf Hall for decades to come. As Margret Atwood put it, with historical fiction, “it is not what, but how”.

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