History is written by the winners. Hilary Mantel takes this concept as a starting point to tell the story of Henry VIII’s reign through the prism of one of the most controversial members of his court; Thomas Cromwell. Traditionally, Cromwell has been portrayed by Tudor historians as a villain; a Machiavellian schemer who ruthlessly disposed of his advisories.
What’s interesting about Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner is her scholarly approach. Like any historian, she spent years researching the life of her hero using a number of contemporary sources. Like Schindler’s Ark, most of what happens in Wolf Hall happened in real life, but it has been embellished with fictional encounters and conversations. From the pages of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell’s reputation is rescued somewhat. The Cromwell we see is man who has pulled himself up from off the streets and into the turbulent court of King Henry VIII. At the beginning of the story, Cromwell, the self-confessed ‘ruffian’ has been first a mercenary, then a banker, a lawyer and finally secretary to the King’s Chief Advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He is the original working class hero made good.
Cromwell is an actor who knows his role within the court of the king, and he needs to portray his role well because this is Henry VIII’s court, which is a nest of vipers. There is Wolsey himself, who plays to his king’s wills and wishes with hopes of consolidating his own power; Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who sees Wolsey and Cromwell as upstarts and a threat to the established nobility of England; and the Boleyn family, who through young Anne Boleyn, hope to take advantage of King Henry’s marital problems with his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. At the centre of the deadly theatre of the court is the king himself. Henry VIII is referred to as ‘noble’ and ‘gracious’, but he seems to not merit any of these titles. He is vain, prone to outbursts and ruthless to those who fail him. However, through Cromwell’s eyes, you almost, but not quite sympathise with Henry, whose inability to produce a legitimate male heir threatens the stability of his dynasty.
The book is 650 pages long, but it makes for compulsive reading. Having studied history at university, I was fascinated by the historical background of this period; you realise that Cromwell’s talents for money-lending, the law and knowledge of Europe means he has just as much power in England as the Duke of Norfolk and the other nobles who inherited their power. Mantel also writes with a fly-on-the-wall approach, which immerses the reader into Cromwell’s world. This is a well-researched and masterful piece of historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading the sequel, the 2012 Man Booker Prize winning Bring Up The Bodies, but for now, I am going to start reading Roddy Doyle’s 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.