Book Review: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Posted February 23, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall


Hilary Mantel

historical fiction that was published by Fourth Estate on November 1, 2009 and has 653 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

First in the Thomas Cromwell historical biographical-fiction series with a look at the disintegration of Henry VIII’s marriage to Queen Katherine and the ascendance of Anne Boleyn as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.

Another argument from me as to what it takes to win a major book award, the 2009 Man Booker Prize.: obtuseness and confusion.

In 2011, Wolf Hall was nominated for the Magnesia Litera Nominee for Translation (Litera za překladovou knihu). In 2010, it won The Rooster – The Morning News Tournament of Books and the Walter Scott Prize. In 2009, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It was also nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and the Costa Book Award for Novel.

My Take

I must confess that the only Cromwell I remember from history is Oliver — he’s Thomas’ great-great-grandnephew. I am curious about this Cromwell, this Thomas. I wonder if he stayed in favor when Anne fell from grace, if he died of old age, if his family flourished, if he ever married.

It’s an intimate look at life at court from Thomas’ outsider viewpoint. Being the son of a blacksmith, the noble lords and ladies didn’t consider him worth bothering about. At first. An inconsideration that allows the very intelligent Thomas to peel back the supposed glamor of court life, the running of a kingdom, and the machinations of court habitués. We also see life outside the court, in Thomas’ own house in London proper, with the young people he takes in as assistants, wards, and family.

There’s the outcry against Martin Luther and his heresies, which Thomas likes to read as part of his staying informed. I must confess that I have very little sympathy for Thomas More; I’d like to read more about him as well.

Oh, it was fascinating to read of Cardinal Wolsey’s London home, York Place. It’s what we now know as Whitehall.

It’s all lovely, and Mantel has woven history into a lovely tale, but with so little depth.

I enjoyed the snarkish humor of the court, how well Thomas fit in, in that respect. In parts of it, Mantel has him keeping track of who owes whom what. He’s almost a Nicolo de Pole (from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series) in his machinations. I’ve always loved a story of political maneuverings, that tilt and shift, and Mantel does provide that.

What she doesn’t provide is an easy read. I found myself wondering who was speaking or acting from one paragraph to another. For a while, I could carry on and understand the flow of events, then a paragraph would shift in, and I was left floundering. About a hundred pages in or so, I simply gave up and read along, hoping that something would make sense.

Read it for its idiosyncratic perspective of a commoner who rose to power through his own wits and considerations. Just don’t expect it to be completely comprehensible.

The Story

It’s the rise of Thomas Cromwell from a precise introduction to his violent life under his father’s boots, to a vague allusion to events between his leaving England and returning to a somehow achieved prosperity, which leads to his advising King Henry VIII.

The story proper opens with Henry wanting to be rid of his late brother’s wife.

The Characters

Thomas Cromwell is a self-made man who educated himself and rose to power in a time when such a thing could not be conceived of. Lizzie Wykys Williams is his only wife; he is her second husband. Gregory is their son; Anne and Grace are their daughters. Wykys is the father-in-law who gave him a chance; I think Mercy was his wife?

Thomas’ family
Walter was his brute of a father. Kat is his sister married to Morgan Williams, a descendant of Owen Tudor. They have two sons: Richard and Walter. Bet is another sister; her children are Christopher and Alice. Johane is Thomas’ sister-in-law married to John Williamson.

Thomas’ adherents
Rafe Sadler is an apprentice; Helen Barre is a widow whom Thomas took in; Stephen Vaughan is his man in Antwerp (Jenneke is an orphan Stephen has taken in); Thomas Avery is being trained to account for Thomas’ private finances; and, Christophe is the latest incarnation of a young French thief whom Thomas takes on. Thomas Wriothesely, a.k.a., Call-Me, works sometimes for Thomas and sometimes for Gardiner — the Cromwell household believes he’s Gardiner’s spy.

The religious include:
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, has taken Thomas in. George Cavendish is the cardinal’s gentleman user. I thought of him as his keeper of the house. Stephen Gardiner, a supposed royal by-blow, is the cardinal’s confidential secretary, becomes Henry’s Secretary, and then Bishop of Winchester. Sir William Gascoigne is the treasurer at the start of the story. Patch, a.k.a., Master Sexton, is the cardinal’s fool whom he gifts to the king. Warham is Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr. Thomas Cranmer, one of the leaders of the English Reformation and becomes Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bishop Fisher is colluding with Lady Exeter to use Dame Eliza Barton to stir the English population up against Henry.

Thomas More is a famous scholar and a fanatic with no compassion, who became Lord Chancellor of England. Alice is his wife, but More is more attuned to his daughter, Meg. Anne Cresacre is married to Moore’s son, John. Antonio Bonvisi is an Italian banker and merchant as well as a friend of Thomas More. William Tynedale is persecuted for translating the Bible into English. Father Bilney, James Bainham
is a barrister of the Middle Temple, Bayfield, John Tewkesbury, Thomas Somer was distributing the gospel in English, and John Frith are all More’s victims.

Some of London’s merchants
Henry Monmouth is a draper accused by Thomas More. Lucy Petyt survives her husband, a master grocer and member of the Commons. Thomas Audley is the Speaker of the Commons, and Richard Riche is his protégé. Rowland Lee is an outspoken cleric.

Henry VIII is thirty-five years old at the start of this story and has been married — wrongfully(!) — to Queen Katherine for twenty years. There are a few excellent quips about this! She and the Princess Mary have their cameo roles as does Reginald Pole. Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond is one of Henry’s bastards.

Harry Norris is the Groom of the Stool. Harry Percy is the Earl of Northumberland with a fancy for Anne. Mark is a duplicitous lutenist who once worked for Wolsey. Thomas Wyatt is another of Anne’s would-be lovers, a poet who is taken in by Thomas Cromwell. Mary Shelton is a Boleyn cousin. Lady Jane Seymour crops up now and again with one mention of her perverted father, Sir John.

Thomas’ enemies include:
Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, is the Boleyn girls’ uncle, one of the king’s advisers, and along with her father, Thomas Boleyn (he becomes the Viscount Rochford, Earl of Wiltshire, and then Monseigneur), and her brother George (he becomes Lord Rochford; he’s married to the vicious Jane), pimp out Mary and Anne Boleyn. Mary is married to Sir William Carey when she has her affair with Henry. She later marries William Stafford to flee the court. Francis Bryan is Anne and Mary’s cousin. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who marries the king’s sister is/was childhood friends with the king.

Lord Mountjoy is Katherine’s Chamberlain. Charles is Katherine’s nephew and the new Holy Roman Emperor with a hold on Pope Clement. Eustace Chapuys is Francis I‘s ambassador to England.

Hans Holbein the Younger shows up to paint.

The Cover and Title

The cover of the book I read is rather dull for its story: a paneled background painted a dull red with the Tudor rose front and center.

The title refers to Jane Seymour’s family home, Wolf Hall. Why Mantel bothered using this for the title of a book that had very, very little to do with either the Seymours or their home, I have no idea. It’s briefly mentioned a few times in the book and at the end when Cromwell is plotting Henry’s progress. That’s it. An opportunity to dupe people into thinking this might be a paranormal romance? I know, I know, that’s a massive reach, but I really can’t think of another unless it’s the sexual hijinks mentioned once, very briefly???