Wolf Hall, or Early Modern England
Hilary Mantel manages to revive an epoch when plotting and scheming were essential components of everyday life. This holds especially true at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, where power has got to be seized and maintained, by fair means or
2009 and 2015: these two years marked an important moment in British literary and cinematographic industry. In 2009, Hilary Mantel wrote her first novel devoted to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand, counsellor and initiator of the Reformation in England. In 2015, a mini-series in two instalments was produced, based on the novel, starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.
Cromwell’s own background is murky and mysterious: readers simply know he is the son of a blacksmith from Putney, a neighbourhood in London. By devious means he manages to become a courtier (he appeared to have been involved in some dishonest activities in Italy) and, by relying upon Machiavellian techniques, he curries favour with the king, favouring his marriage to Ann Boleyn. His own political expedience allows him to align Britain with reformed theologians, letting Lutheran doctrines penetrate into England at a time when the monarch was a devout subject of the Pope.
The title requires explaining: why Wolf Hall? The author implicitly refers to Hobbes’ philosophy: court life equals to the Hobbesian worldview, whereby men are treacherous and malicious and capitalise on the downfall of the others – Hobbes went down in history when he wrote homo homini lupus; the perfect definition of this situation. Cromwell soon learns this lesson. If you want to wield power, anything goes, which is reminiscent of Machiavelli and his Prince, a text frowned upon in Tudor England.
It should be strongly emphasized that an important feature of the text is its realism. Hilary Mantel manages to revive an epoch when plotting and scheming were essential components of everyday life. This holds especially true at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, where power has got to be seized and maintained, by fair means or foul. There is no other alternative in an enclosed space, like royal residences; a world regulated by its own laws, where nothing can be altered.
Another realistic and historical feature is how history develops under Cromwell. He pushes for radical religious reforms, starting with the Dissolution of Monasteries (1536-1539), whereby religious holdings were seized by the Crown and he favours the divorce between Henry and Katherine of Aragon along with Archbishop Cranmer. Finally, he advises the monarch on the beheading of Thomas More, the Chancellor who had refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII.
Wolf Hall is really worth the while because it sketches a turbulent and lively epoch, when anything was acceptable to seize and negotiate power.