All Roads Lead to Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, takes a well-known historical event and gives it a fresh and original perspective. Covering the period from 1500-1535, Wolf Hall brings to life the Tudor Court of Henry VIII with its great cast of characters: ambassadors, spies, ladies-in-waiting, and clergyman.

henry-viiiThe historical event, which has been captured in Masterpiece Theater productions and movies, surrounds Henry VIII’s efforts to obtain Pope Clement’s permission to divorce his wife, Katherine of Aragon, so that he can marry the younger, Anne Boleyn. Katherine has failed to produce a male heir; Henry wants a male heir to avoid rival claims to the crown like those which had caused the Wars of the Roses.

Henry seeks the counsel of Cardinal Wolsey and later Thomas More. Both Wolsey and More initially try to honor the King’s demands. But eventually, they become critical of the King’s case. More, in particular has qualms, “She [Anne Boleyn] is a witch you know. She has put the King under an enchantment, so he risks everything to be cast out of Christendom, to be damned.”
Enter Thomas Cromwell. The story is told in the present tense and through the eyes of Cromwell, mentee of Cardinal Wolsey and More’s successor as councilor to the King. Cromwell, who most historians have portrayed in villainous tones, is a much more complicated figure in Mantel’s work. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the consummate politician: a charmer and a bully, an idealist and an opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. He also understands human nature. As he puts it, “Man is wolf to man.”

henrys-wivesHis life experiences and personal tragedies give him both the appearance of a Renaissance man and a deeply human one. Cromwell has studied law, worked as a wool trader in Antwerp, a banker in Florence, and a foot soldier in the continental army. He is a loyal friend, devoted husband, loving father, and a covert Protestant, angered by the heresy executions authorized by Thomas More – his arch enemy.

While Cardinal Wolsey attempts to gain Pope Clement’s approval without success, and Thomas More, refuses to advocate such “heresy,” it is left to Thomas Cromwell to argue the case for the King’s right to divorce. Knowing the King has a weak theological case, Cromwell seeks a loophole. He does his due diligence sending Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to Italy to consult on his behalf: “We have had all the best advice. Dr. Cranmer at my recommendation sent to Venice, to a learned body of rabbis, to take opinion on the meaning of the ancient texts.”

After much sturm und drag, Cromwell goes to Parliament arguing for royal supremacy over the Church. “Since Christ did not induce his followers into earthly power, how can it be maintained that the princes of today derive their power from the Pope?” Parliament assents passing the Act of Succession in 1533, giving the King the authority to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. And, more significantly, this act of Parliament set in motion bigger changes. Ecclesiastical rules are turned on their head, leading eventually to deeper theological breaks with Rome and the Catholic Church.

But all is not wedded bliss: Anne, like Katherine, fails to produce a male heir and Henry’s eyes begin to wander. The object of his eye is Jane Seymour, who resides at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family. As the book concludes, Cromwell notes the King’s itinerary and holiday plans: “Early September. Five Days. Wolf Hall.” Stay tuned.

About Robin Weaver (53 Articles)
Robin Weaver is a lawyer with over 20 years experience in strategic communications, government affairs and tax planning with a Fortune 100 company. She enjoys reading, especially history and biography, traveling, and movies. A life-long Anglophile, she also enjoys Jane Austen, George Eliot, and trips to London. Having grown up in Pittsburgh, she remains a loyal Steeler fan. For Woman Around Town, her stories focus on careers.