Book Review: Wolf Hall

There is always something purely magical about historical-fiction and its ability to provide us with a world so different from our own.

As a history graduate; I have always had my qualms about it, in the sense that it can often obscure historical reality. A lot of what people know about history can often come from fictional adaptations like this, which is on the one hand worrying, when it is done badly, but reassuring when it is executed well. Wolf Hall, unreservedly belongs to the later.

Since it’s publication in 2010, it has opened up debate by creating discussions about the significance of Thomas Cromwell’s role. History, more often than not, is told by the victors and the Tudor story often features unrivaled focus and praise for Henry VIII alone. However, Mantel’s Wolf Hall, has posed the suggestion that Henry VIII was a mere figurehead for the plethora of minds that were running the country. It is through using the protagonist of Thomas Cromwell, that the reader realises there were many minds and characters behind Henry’s successes (and failures…).

Thomas Cromwell has been given a harsh judgement by many historians, however, this account is an incredible dive into the mind and life of one of history’s most notable statesmen, who came from humble origins.

Title: Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel

Publisher: Fourth Estate (2010)

Genre/topics: Historical Fiction, The Tudors, Henry VIII

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and the historical background

Mantel’s novel begins in 1500, when Thomas Cromwell was a mere boy, free from the responsibilities of being the mind that ran the country. Cromwell had a rough start in life which is often missed out from the history books. Son of a blacksmith, Cromwell was repeatedly physically abused by his father and had a rocky upbringing. However, this upbringing made him humble, and an extremely valuable negotiator who could empathize with every cause. These skills would soon be put to good use in later life.

The book documents Cromwell’s beginnings but then lurches forward to 1527. Henry VIII was comfortably sitting on the throne, alongside his wife, Catherine of Aragon. This is an England where Thomas More was the speaker of the House of Commons, where Cardinal Wolesy establishes Cardinal College in Oxford, and England are desperately struggling to establish peace with France. In 1525, peace between the two nations is agreed and the end of the year marks the beginning of the English Reformation, the de-tangling of the Church of England from the overbearing influence of Rome and the Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the book, before his death, Wolsey remained the King’s Chief adviser, and Cromwell was merely his assistant. However, after failed attempts to get Rome to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he falls out of favour and is stripped of his titles. This, and Wolsey’s unexpected death, becomes the perfect breeding ground for Cromwell rise to powerful prominence.

Thomas Cromwell’s family become decimated from the sweating sickness as it reaps through London, taking his wife and both his two children. However, this marks the beginning of Cromwell’s success as he becomes more recognized at the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell manages to help secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who promptly gives birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth is not the desirable heir to the throne (being female), but history tells us this doesn’t get in her way.

This first installment documents the Act of Supremacy, whereby Henry VIII is recognised as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus breaking from Rome. There appears to be an element of calm in the final pages, perhaps signalling the calm before the inevitable storm that is to come. That storm, being the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and everything that entails.


BBC Adaptation of Wolf Hall. Image: Amazon.

This book had been sitting on my to read pile for a long time, ever since my Grandad had told me to read it many years ago. If you’re reading this Grandad, thank you for the recommendation, I’ve finally gotten round to reading it! I can see why you told me to read it.

Although it took me a while to get used to Hilary Mantel’s third person perspective, I really found myself enjoying this unique way of storytelling. The reader’s experience is completely told through the eyes and ears of Thomas Cromwell; every conversation, act, and event is told through his perspective. It is unforgiving, relentless but at the same time, fully immersive. The reader is trapped inside his mind, and his mind only, throughout the entire novel. For a long time, there is little mention of Henry VIII which I found quite amusing as he is traditionally at the center of most books! Henry would hate the fact that he isn’t the center of this story – but that’s partly why I loved it so much.

The use of this protagonist offers an unrivaled account, and an account of Tudor history that has never been told in this way in historical fiction. It is eye opening in its challenge of the way we view the traditional Tudor story and the components of the regime. In the crafting of this protagonist, Mantel strips Henry of his traditional prominence and gives the wheel to the man who was the real pioneer of his success – Thomas Cromwell.

Various historical dramas have put forward Henry VIII as the central character with his outlandish religious and foreign policy agendas. His women and countless affairs have been the focus of dramas such as The Tudors (2007), but Mantel’s version with the use of Cromwell, makes the reader think outside the box of prescribed history we are given. It puts forward the agenda that the underdogs of history were in fact the real makers of the Tudor story. For once, the Tudors are not told through endless monarchical sex and scandal, but intelligence, intrigue and dedication, shown through the experience of Cromwell himself. I appreciate this book just for this element alone, as it is so refreshing to see an author take on a new perspective that gives a voice to an individual who has been overlooked.

As well as this, the prose and writing is beautiful. It evokes an age so different from our own, but yet full of similarities. Throughout the novel are frequent bouts of sweating sickness and the plague, as well as political debates, religious changes and discussions about cultural upheaval. Every age has its own version of these debates, but featuring these so fully allows the reader to be transformed into this period. It is hard to read this work of fiction and not escape to an entirely different world. I felt deeply immersed, fully informed and endlessly fascinated by what was going on in the pages in front of me. I loved the experience of reading this book, as much I valued its unique perspective and beautiful prose.

I am not someone who often reads historical fiction, but this is exceptional. It is a work of perfection in every way. Granted, it took me a while to get the hang of the prose style, as it is something I have rarely ever come across, but it was nonetheless an essential component to the novel’s success. It was a little slow and unnecessarily ‘fluffy’ in some parts, considering the momentous period in history it covers, but never did I feel like it was a slog. It has made me re-assess my reading habits and think about reading more historical fiction in the future.

A great opener to the rest of the series. I can’t wait to read the others!