Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all. To be sure, one could imagine worse: we are not being invited to enter the life of, say, Stalin’s sinister henchman Lavrenti Beria. But Thomas Cromwell, the focus of Mantel’s loving attention for almost six hundred pages, is not that distant from the bureaucratic architect of the Great Purge. This is not Oliver Cromwell, the towering Puritan revolutionary, regicide, and Lord Protector, that we are talking about; it is his older kinsman, related by one of those tenuous lines of descent that excite the genealogically obsessed.
Not that Thomas Cromwell came from an illustrious family; quite the contrary, as the novel makes abundantly clear. The son of an abusive, alcoholic blacksmith, Thomas rose to become for eight crucial years in the 1530s the most powerful political figure in Henry VIII’s England, the man who orchestrated the King’s momentous break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the seizure of their wealth, and the execution for treason of Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, the Carthusian monks, and many, many others. You cannot make a Reformation without breaking eggs.
That Thomas Cromwell was a historically important figure is beyond doubt; that he should serve as the sympathetic hero of a novel is more surprising. There was nothing remotely glamorous or romantic in his person. Even the painter Hans Holbein could not pretend that he was handsome. In Holbein’s great portraits Thomas More fairly glows with a deep thoughtfulness; Erasmus focuses his quicksilver wit and ironic intelligence on the quill pen poised above the sheet of paper; but jowly Cromwell, his mouth set in a hard scowl, clutches a piece of paper like a dagger and looks out at the world through wary, piggish eyes.
There was, to be sure, a moment at which Cromwell was regarded as heroic. The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, who fervently celebrated every blow struck against the Pope, considered Cromwell a “valiant soldier and captain of Christ.” But Wolf Hall—which has just won the Man Booker Prize—is not the story of a Reformation champion. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell gives almost no thought to the theological questions that obsessed his contemporaries. He knows, of course, what the Catholic More and the Lutheran William Tyndale are viciously arguing about, and in subtle, indirect ways he inclines to the latter. But he does so not because he is drawn to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone or because he has been brooding about the Eucharist, but because, to his skeptical, calculating, and deeply secular intelligence, the Reformers are useful pawns in an elaborate chess game. That game…
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