Wolf Hall

A Novel

by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2009, 560 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2010, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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BookBrowse Review

Historical fiction set during the reign of Henry VIII; winner of the 2009 Booker Prize

Religion, power, politics, money and sex - key elements of human life - are all on full display in Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel. With judicious helpings of period detail, she presents an appealing portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the man who managed to free King Henry VIII from the Catholic Church and his first Queen, Katherine of Aragon, allowing Henry to enter into a second marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Whether or not a reader is familiar with the reign and times of Henry VIII, the story itself can be followed effortlessly, aided by the Table of Contents, Cast of Characters and Tudor Family Tree provided. Henry himself appears not only as a king who brought about vast changes in English history but also as a man of his times, influenced by the Renaissance, Martin Luther's Reformation and humanist philosophy, then called The New Learning. Henry's conviction that he must provide a male heir for the throne of England would make Wolf Hall essentially a man's story except that Mantel's retelling through the eyes of Cromwell sheds illumination on the potent role of women in determining English destiny.

Thomas Cromwell, conditioned to alertness by a violent and abusive father but introduced to royalty and privilege by a protective uncle, learned early to move fast, think rapidly and keep his eye out for survival. His intellect and boundless energy eventually brought him into the inner circle of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the King's Lord Chancellor, from whom he learned political savvy and the art of persuasion.

Because Cromwell spent his youth in Italy and France, he developed tolerance, knowledge and the humanist views found amongst the advanced thinkers of the time. No man, however, wields power with entirely clean hands. Once Cromwell's gifts landed him in the royal presence, he learned how to channel his scrappiness into a ruthless approach to inevitable enemies, earning him his reputation as a fearsome executioner. One such enemy was Thomas More, papist and man of conscience, who emerges as mean-spirited and fanatical, wearing a hair shirt beneath his robes.

Thomas Cromwell was the ideal man for Henry VIII. He started with nothing to lose, developed capacities for love and loyalty, gained much wealth and position, then risked it all for his beliefs in learning, freedom of thought and compassion for mankind. A Renaissance man, if you will, and a force for change in a time when England, and indeed much of Northern Europe, was emerging from the thrall of Catholicism and the heavy hand of the Pope. Along with Queen Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Hilary paints these portraits with colorful language, broad strokes of action and accents of biting wit.

Most fans of historical fiction, including those who have read extensively about the Tudor period, will find new ground covered here. There is something liberating about reading a story while already knowing how it will all turn out, yet I became so sympathetic to Cromwell that I found myself dreading his impending doom. Most impressive is Hilary Mantel's fresh new account of an old, old tale, placing it in the broad canvas of western civilization and the evolution of society.

Reviewed by Judy Krueger

This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Cast of Characters

Henry VIII
King of England 1509-1547
Painted by Hans Holbein in 1536

German painter Hans Holbein made his reputation in Basel, designing wood blocks for book printers, and painting portraits and commissions for churches. Despite his relative success, the disturbed conditions of the Reformation led him to doubt his financial future and thus seek work in Britain. During his first visit in 1526 he was patronized by the circle of Sir Thomas More. Until his death Holbein was employed by Henry VIII in a wide assortment of tasks, ranging from designing court costumes, silverware, jewelry and triumphal arches to painting the actual and prospective brides of the monarch.

Thomas Cromwell
Appointed Lord Chancellor after Thomas More’s resignation and went on to become the King’s closest advisor.
Painted by Hans Holbein in 1532-33

Katherine of Aragon
Daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, she was originally married to Arthur, first son of Henry VII. Arthur died in 1502 and seven years later she was married to Henry VIII shortly after he was crowned King in 1509. She failed to provide him with a male heir, which led Henry to seek a divorce from her and replace her with Anne Boleyn.
Painted by Michael Sittow in 1502

Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII’s second wife, crowned Queen Consort June 1533. After giving birth to the future Elizabeth I of England, Anne also failed to provide Henry with a male heir. In 1536 Henry had her tried for high treason, charging her with dubious claims of incest and adultery, and she was beheaded on May 19, 1536.
Artist unknown

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Lord Chancellor from 1515-1529. Believing that Wolsey was deliberately delaying the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII had him stripped of his title of Lord Chancellor, and later arrested on charges of high treason. He fell ill and died on his way to the Tower of London.
Painted by Sampson Strong in 1526

Sir Thomas More replaced Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529. He resigned in 1532 over the issue of King Henry’s attempt to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, and was found guilty of high treason and beheaded on July 6, 1535. More was beatified in 1886 and canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935.
Painted by Hans Holbein in 1527

Reviewed by Judy Krueger

This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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