Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Wolf Hall.
This vast, unstoppable saga plunges readers into the personal and professional life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s aide and confidant, from his childhood in Putney to his later domestic existence at
the family home at Austin Friars, then to the challenges he faces in assisting Henry Tudor in his efforts to seize his country away from the Catholic church and marry the woman he loves.
Henry is wrestling with massive problems: how to reconcile the desires of the ruling families, especially the Boleyns and the Howards, who are keen to extricate themselves from the strictures of the Catholic cardinals and bishops. But the young Henry in also fanatical in his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn and produce his long-desired male heir.
It’s not surprising, then, that Cromwell finds himself caught between two worlds. He’s wary yet reluctant with admiration for Catherine, the established and much-loved queen of Spanish royal blood who moves about the royal palaces stitched into gowns bristling with gemstones. Yet Cromwell also struggles with his faith and his longing to reform England in his King’s own image, enabling Henry to get an annulment and a declaration that his marriage to Catherine never existed.
In details often brutal and horrifying, Hilary Mantel revels in the petty scheming and sexual manipulations of court life and the
private machinations of the privy council as Cromwell attempts to carve out a
place for himself in Henry’s inner circle. Tudor life is indeed transcending
history, bloody and demonic as it is; throughout, the ingenious Cromwell seems to handle it all with a great deal of panache and expert political skill.
Mantel’s Cromwell can cut through any legal entanglement, and although the author portrays him as having a gentle and easy manner, he can also make creditors weep and easily sway his skeptics with his talent for money lending and forming legislation. Thomas’s life is often troubled and tortured
- he endures the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, from the dreaded “sleeping sickness,” while also ambushing the easy flatterings from sharp-eyed Mary Boleyn, who is always out for prey.
History is perpetually layered upon history in this story. When a newly disgraced and embattled Lord Cardinal Wolsey dies
suddenly after opening a court of inquiry at York Place to look into the validity of the king’s marriage, the incident truly tests Cromwell’s floating diplomacy and his bourgeoning science of ambiguity. When the King applies this science to the slow and trackless dubious ruin of his minister, a pragmatist to the last, Cromwell seems to appreciate this fact, prepared to serve the most uxorious of men in their fight for status in Henry’s world.
Mantel’s supporting players are huge as she vividly brings Cromwell’s world to life with the requisite burnings and grisly beheadings. Inch by inch, the novel moves towards its fateful conclusion, Anne’s marriage to Henry all but cemented and the
king all but committed to a route of extrication. There will be no chance to turn back from the compact between the ruler and the ruled and that momentous agreement between a husband and his new wife.
Cromwell finds himself caught in this “world of sin” and what is to be expiated, along with all of the double dealings to wrestle the church’s wealth from the powerful but increasingly fragile Wolsey.
His daughters, his sister, his wife, and his household are decimated, his people never out of the black
- and then, of course, his cardinal is lost. Thomas witnesses Henry under Anne’s eye
with his wits scattered and fleeing, “his soul constantly turning and twisting like a hare under the eye of a hawk.”