"The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms...This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase...the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh."
The scant knowledge of Thomas Cromwell I had prior to reading “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel mainly came from watching “The Tudors”, the television show. Cromwell is barely mentioned in history lessons – at least, history lessons I've been in as a student and as a teaching assistant – because, of course, there is Henry VIII, there is Katherine and Anne Boleyn (not to mention the other four wives), and there is even Cardinal Wolsey. So I am very glad that Mantel took the time to write of this intriguing, illustrious, and – in many ways – frightening period of England’s history from an otherwise unheard-of point of view.
Considering Cromwell's humble origins – he was the son of a blacksmith who regularly beat his son, near enough to death on occasions – it is staggering that Cromwell rose so high, practically second in all but name to King Henry – obviously infuriating to the nobility – and that he became someone upon whom the King so thoroughly relied. In “Wolf Hall” Cromwell regularly references to his time abroad as a young man. He did many things, including soldiering, learning the banking trade in Italy, and training as a lawyer, but no matter all his skills and talents, it all comes down to the question of blood to certain of the King’s friends, beautifully demonstrated by this: “There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves an ancient pedigree, like Walter’s, [his father], or enter into the service of ancient families. Don’t try to go it alone, or they’ll think you’re pirates.”
However, Cromwell seemed to refuse this and did go it alone. He was the protégé of Cardinal Wolsey and stuck by him all through his master’s and mentor’s fall from grace, something for which King Henry commends him, as though he – the King – has forgotten it was him who was bent on destroying Wolsey, thanks to a certain Anne Boleyn. It is Cromwell, not Wolsey, who manages to get the divorce that Henry so desperately wants so he can put off Katherine of Aragon and get Anne Boleyn. It is Cromwell who ever so gently suggests reformation of the Church to Henry, enticing him with both power and financial gains – in the novel, Cromwell suggests that the clergy own a third of England altogether – while acknowledging privately that the English deserve to be able to read the Gospel in their own language. He is not so zealous as Tyndale – the translator and peddler of such a text, and hounded out of England for it – but Cromwell is evidently anxious for ordinary people to be unburdened and unshackled by Rome. After all, asks he, where in the Gospel does it refer to Popes? Where do the clergy own estates? Why must ordinary people bankrupt themselves to shorten Purgatory? In fact, where is Purgatory at all?
Mantel has worked so brilliantly to craft a character hitherto unknown to those whom might would not think to seek him out in the history books, a man so brilliant that one might not lament another such as him being alive and working in our government today. He knows how deal in both money and favours, how to keep his concerns private while discreetly ferreting out the business of others - how to navigate the Tudor court, in short. No mean feat for any person. And not only Cromwell has she portrayed so brilliantly, but others to whom we might not pay much heed. Mary Boleyn is a prime example, and one whom I ended up feeling very sorry for. Used by her father and King Henry as and when she was needed, she still had the sense to keep her mouth shut and not complain, because what could she, a poor and feeble woman do?! Politics and scandalous relationships exist everywhere, but I am glad we do not have the Tudor brand of it any more. Or do we? If we do I am lucky to have not come across it.
Anyway, I digress. To sum up, “Wolf Hall” is staggering, brilliant, and well worth the time needed to invest in it. For those who want to write, read this. For historical fiction lovers, read it. And to anyone else who just loves a good book, read it. (I think) you won’t regret it.
Until next time!