Wolf Hall is the first instalment in Hilary Mantel’s as-yet unfinished trilogy dealing with the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court. It’s a detailed, highly-fictionalised account of Cromwell’s rise from a blacksmith’s son to the king’s right-hand man, and the time between spent as Wolsey’s man before the cardinal’s fall. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies continues Thomas Cromwell’s story up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. It sees Cromwell rise even further, to the height of his power in the king’s court.
Subjects of vast historical importance swirl around the action of both books: William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible circulates throughout Europe. The Anabaptists of Münster take the city and found their New Jerusalem. Henry Tudor breaks England away from the influence of Rome. But while the novels are directly concerned with these world-changing events, this is Cromwell’s story – not merely a history lesson on early modern Europe.
And that’s the vital point that makes both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so interesting: this is Cromwell’s story. It’s not the story of Henry VIII, or Katherine of Aragon, or the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of the Seymours. It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell. Not just Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Master of the Rolls, and Vicegerent of the King in spirituals, but Thomas Cromwell the man.
Wolf Hall begins in Cromwell’s later childhood, and then jumps forward decades to his service under Cardinal Wolsey. But the short time we spent with childhood Cromwell is vital, and it frames the way we see him for the rest of novels. His time as Wolsey’s right-hand man, while not as historically or narratively important as his service under the king, has a similar impact on the way we see him.
These early sections frame Cromwell as human; as a violently abused child, as a protégé and friend of a great man he deeply admires, as a husband and father made distant by work, but capable of displays of unsteady affection. And this framing of his character is vital because it contrasts the later parts of the story so significantly. As he rises in the king’s favour Cromwell performs more and more heartless acts to please the crown, and to secure his own advancement. Without the early sections of Thomas Cromwell the man we’d likely see the later Thomas Cromwell as either a monster, or an automaton devoid of human feeling. But we don’t – we never lose sight of Cromwell the man.
It’s not about making him a relatable character – by and large he isn’t one, though anyone with an overworked, overtired, overly-distant father will likely see much they recognise. Instead it’s about making him human. We see a Cromwell who’s increasingly capable of performing ruthless acts, for reasons that aren’t ever really explicated for our benefit. But when we read through his heartless, calculating interrogation of Thomas More it’s framed by what we know of Cromwell the man. The suffering of his childhoood. The day when his wife died of fever, and the days later when his two daughters followed. We remember, following these deaths, moments like this:
“Now he stands in a window embrasure, Liz’s prayer book in hand. His daughter Grace liked to look at it, and today he can feel the imprint of her small fingers under his own.”
These moments of touching, sometimes heart-wrenching humanity stay with us and keep the later Cromwell human. They don’t justify his actions, or absolve his character – they’re not designed to. But they serve to reframe everything that happens within the context of one man’s life.
But, most interestingly, while these instances serve to keep us in mind of Cromwell humanity, they don’t serve to give us an insight into him. He remains closed off to us, for all but the most fleeting of moments. In my mind, the most important line from the entire series so far comes from one of these rare insights into Cromwell’s thoughts, at a less-than pivotal moment towards the end of Wolf Hall:
‘I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?’
If even Thomas Cromwell can’t see into the mind of Thomas Cromwell what hope do we have, with only his increasingly emotionless actions to interpret? The early parts of Wolf Hall allow us to see Cromwell the man, and the events that formed him, but they rarely give us access to his interiority. As the novels progress these few moments of access become even more rare. And just as Cromwell’s convictions and motives are pulled steadily, almost imperceptibly away from us, so too does he find his own interiority increasingly remote. How can that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?
So we’re left to form our own interpretations of his character, and place our own reasons for his actions. He seems to genuinely hold some belief in the Christian god described by Tyndale and the reformers, but to what extent is his dismantling of the Catholic Church in England a result of this belief rather than a result of his desire to redistribute Catholic lands and wealth to benefit his friends, the king, and himself? Does he really believe Anne is guilty of the crimes he accuses her of? Even he seems to have conflicting moments on this – we’re never able to do anything more than guess.
To what extent are Cromwell’s actions determined by his beliefs? To what extent his desire for personal advancement, and the self-preservation of his position in court? To what extent are his ruthlessness and the death he brings about mitigated or explained by the different, rather more ruthless atmosphere of the courts of sixteenth century Europe? The lack of insight we’re given into Cromwell’s interior leaves us with no authority on these, and other, matters. So we speculate. And we create our own interpretation of Cromwell, spurred on only by the humanity we saw in his past, and the increasingly rare moments of introspection we’re allowed to witness.
That, even moreso than the deft, complex portrayal of courtly affairs in sixteenth century Europe, is the reason Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are both such perfect works of fiction. The way that Mantel chooses to close off Thomas Cromwell from us, and leaves little more than his actions to support him as a protagonist. The fact that Cromwell is such a fascinating, compelling, unceasingly human character when his actions are morally fraught and his workings are hidden from us – that’s what makes the series such an incredible feat of writing on the part of the author.
Hilary Mantel’s final novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is set for publication in 2015. If you know your history better than me you may know where it’s heading. Either way, if you haven’t read the previous two novels in the series you should try them out. They’re both dense, and until they dig their claws into you they’re hard work – there are so many characters, and so many of them are called Thomas – but once those claws are in they’re unlikely to come out.