Extended Summary

Hillary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall presents a fictionalized portrait of a dramatic period in English history, when King Henry VIII used his desire for a divorce to challenge, and eventually topple, the Roman Catholic Church in his country. The protagonist of Wolf Hall, and the lens through which the reader views the events, is Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become a lawyer and chief aide to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and eventually a confidant and minister to Henry VIII.

Although the principal action of Wolf Hall occurs between 1527 and 1533, the novel begins with a brief scene in 1500, which establishes the character of Thomas Cromwell and describes his harsh upbringing. Cromwell, just fifteen years old, is brutally beaten by his father, Walter, and after escaping to the home of older sister, Kat, he catches a ride on a ship to Europe. Cromwell’s years in Europe are not described explicitly in the novel, but Mantel does use occasional flashbacks, to Cromwell’s stint fighting in the French army, to his work as a merchant in Antwerp, Belgium, and in Florence, Italy.

Mantel picks up in 1527, as Cromwell assists in the day-to-day activities of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and an aide to Henry VIII. Wolsey wishes to establish two colleges in his name; doing so requires the consolidation of church lands elsewhere, and the closing of monasteries. Wolsey’s principal problem, however, is the fact that the king wants the church to nullify his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who has yet to bear him a son and heir. Henry’s Biblical justification for the divorce is that Katherine was not a virgin when they married. Although Katherine had been married before, to Henry’s brother Arthur, who died, that marriage was said not to have been consummated. If the marriage between Katherine and Arthur had been consummated, then Henry and Katherine have been committing incest, and their marriage must be nullified. Katherine denies Henry’s claim that she wasn’t a virgin, and everyone seems to believe that she is telling the truth. What Henry really has against Katherine is the fact that she hasn’t produced a son; the claim about her purity when they married is simply an accuse to dismiss her. Wolsey pleads Henry’s case to the pope in Rome, but so far he has had no success, and Henry is growing impatient.

Contrasted with the tumultuous family politics at court, Thomas Cromwell’s home at Austin Friars is a model of stability. In addition to his wife Lizzie, Cromwell lives with his two young daughters, Grace and Anne, his older son, Gregory, and a number of servants. His chief clerk, twenty-one-year-old Rafe Sadler, has lived with Cromwell since he was seven. In addition to the sanctuary of his family, Austin Friars provides Cromwell with another private retreat: pirated literature from the European Reformation. Cromwell reads the Bible in English, an act that is illegal in his country. The chief antagonist to the reformist literature and ideas in England is Thomas More, author of Utopia and a powerful advisor to Henry.

The next section of Wolf Hall picks up two years later, in 1529. Wolsey has been dismissed from his position of Lord Chancellor to the king, and told to return to his bishopric in York. Although the official reasons for Wolsey’s ousting are vague, it’s clear that Henry is frustrated by the cardinal’s unsuccessful attempts to secure an annulment of his marriage to Katherine. Cromwell oversees the packing of Wolsey’s home and preparation of his passage north. Although the entryway to power opened by Cromwell’s association with Wolsey has been shut forever, and everyone else is deserting the cardinal, Cromwell decides to stick faithfully to his patron. Even the cardinal’s enemies, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, respect Cromwell for his perseverance.

Henry’s desperation to be divorced is explained in the next section, which begins in 1521 and works back to the scene of the cardinal’s sacking in 1529. The section begins with the story of Anne Boleyn, who first appeared at court in 1521 and soon had “a little trail of pretty gentleman following her.” She soon stirred controversy becoming secretly engaged to Harry Percy, one of the king’s attendants, who has already been promised to another noblewoman. Henry is first rumored to be involved with Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister. Later Henry becomes enamored with Anne, who will not sleep with him until they are married, and sets Cardinal Wolsey to the task of annulling his union with Katherine.

During this period Cromwell’s family is hit hard by the plague which sweeps through London one summer. First Cromwell’s wife Lizzie, dies, and later his daughters Grace and Anne perish. Cromwell is eventually joined at Austin Friars by his sisters Bet and Kat, his mother-in-law Mercy, his sister-in-law Johane, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile Henry flaunts his relationship with Anne Boleyn, and the cardinal organizes an ecclesiastical court to decide the fate of the marriage, involving an emissary from Rome, Cardinal Campeggio. One day while running an errand at court for the cardinal, Cromwell strikes up a friendship with Mary Boleyn. Mary explains Ann’s strategy for getting Henry: “She knows I was Henry’s mistress and she sees how I’m left. And she takes a lesson from it.” Mary, recently widowed, hints that she would consider marrying Cromwell. Cromwell shrugs off Mary’s suggestion and decides to keep it to himself. The court convenes, and advocates for Henry and Queen Katherine make their respective cases, as Cromwell and his ward Rafe look on from the back of the room. Eventually Cardinal Campeggio adjourns the court, and there is little hope that the court will reconvene or that the church will settle the matter. The international situation also is affecting the proceedings, as the Pope has signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, who is also Queen Katherine’s nephew. At this point it seems that the powers within the Catholic Church are committed to fighting Henry’s divorce, and it is this failure of diplomacy and intra-church politics that leads to Cardinal Wolsey’s sacking in 1529.

The principal charge against Cardinal Wolsey is for “upholding a foreign jurisdiction within the king’s realm,” a charge that implies the dissolving of the Catholic church in England, although Henry refuses to go so far explicitly. Cromwell continues to serve the cardinal, who believes Henry’s charges against Wolsey constitute a proxy assault on the power of the Pope. All of the cardinal’s old rivals, including Thomas More and the Duke of Norfolk, whose niece is Anne Boleyn, have joined the campaign against him, although for different reasons. Cromwell visits the king to plead Wolsey’s case, and is partially successful: he impresses Henry with his cleverness and gumption, and Henry responds by improving the cardinal’s living conditions.

Cromwell starts to work his way into Henry’s inner circle, still advocating for the cardinal but impressing Henry with his advice on other matters as well. Anne Boleyn, taking notice of Cromwell’s growing influence, confronts him. Cromwell tries to convince Anne that the cardinal is the one person in all of Europe who can give her what she wants, but Anne responds that the cardinal has taken too long in accomplishing in his mission. Cromwell is able to win from Henry more money and safe passage for the cardinal to York, but the cardinal remains an enemy to the royal court.

Around London, Cromwell visits various figures regarding Henry’s situation. There is Stephen Gardiner, Wolsey’s longtime rival and Master Secretary to the King. Also...

(The entire section is 3172 words.)

Wolf Hall Chapter Summaries

Wolf Hall Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

In 1500, Thomas Cromwell, a young boy of Putney, England, is being kicked and beaten by his father, Walter, who is a local brewer and blacksmith. Thomas cannot fight back and is oblivious to pain because he hurts all over. All he notices is the knotted twine that ties his father’s boot together. When the twine breaks, Walter curses his son and leaves off.

Thomas sinks into unconsciousness. When he awakens, he finds that he has made his way to the door of his sister, Kat Williams. Since his mother died, Thomas has viewed Kat as his mother. Married into the powerful Williams family, Kat hates her father for his violent tendencies. Now only Thomas is left at home to be the target of his abuse. Kat’s husband, Morgan,...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

In 1527, Thomas Cromwell, now in his forties and a lawyer attached to Cardinal Wolsey, journeys back to London from Yorkshire. He has been observing conditions there on behalf of the cardinal, who is also the Archbishop of York but has never been there. Cromwell encounters Stephen Gardiner, who is also in the service of Wolsey but is Cromwell’s enemy. Gardiner sees him over the Thames to Wolsey’s residence.

Cardinal Wolsey teases Cromwell about two things: Cromwell’s imaginary demand for food out of season and his supposed immorality as he travels about the country. Cromwell is now married but lived with a woman in Antwerp when he was there. Wolsey also has a son as well as a daughter, although he took the vows of...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

Thomas Cromwell is greeted by his wife, Lizzie, on his return from Yorkshire and the visit to the cardinal. She hands him a cup of wine as well as a letter from their son, Gregory, who is at school in Cambridge. Gregory sends little news written in bad Latin. Cromwell makes excuses for Gregory’s laziness, glad that the boy is not turning out as rough as he himself was in his youth.

Cromwell tells his wife that Wolsey wants him to go to court to act as a spy on the queen and her people since he knows a little Spanish. Lizzie tells him of her visit to a friend whose husband is a master jeweler. Recently a large emerald was brought in to make a ring, but the stone shattered. Lizzie believes the ring is for the king to...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

In 1529 Cardinal Wolsey is removed from power; he is no longer King Henry VIII’s Chancellor. The Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk arrive to dismantle Wolsey’s establishment at York Place, which will be turned into a residence for Lady Anne Boleyn. They also demand that Wolsey turn over the Great Seal of England, but Cromwell tells them that, according to law, it cannot be handed over to anyone but the Master of the Rolls.

They return the next day and continue with the removal of Cardinal Wolsey. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s usher, is dismayed at the way all of Wolsey’s belongings are being handled. Wolsey’s treasurer, Sir William Gascoigne, says that he has heard that Wolsey is going straight to the Tower...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

Anne Boleyn arrived in King Henry’s court in 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell discuss the conflict when her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, announced that she pledged herself to Harry Percy, the heir of the Earl of Northumberland, instead of Wolsey’s planned suitor, Butler of Ireland. Cardinal Wolsey ordered Boleyn to stop his daughter.

Cromwell tells Wolsey of the gossip that Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary Boleyn, is currently the king’s mistress. It is also rumored that it was the mother of Anne and Mary with whom young Henry lost his virginity. The scandal of the king sleeping with the entire family intrigues Wolsey, although it also worries him. King Henry already has one...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary

On All Hallows Eve (Halloween) of 1529, Thomas Cromwell prays for the souls of his dead. He remembers how he and Liz used to pray for her father Henry Wykys, his father Walter Cromwell, her first husband Thomas Williams, some distant cousins, and others who had passed on. Now he prays alone, although he is at Esher with Cardinal Wolsey instead of at home at the Austin Friars. He hopes that the spirit of his wife will find him, believing that of course she will know that he is with the cardinal.

When he awakens, his grief is overwhelming. He picks up Liz’s prayer book, which Grace so loved to look at. He reads over the prayers of the canonical hours, each page illuminated by an engraving. He stops at the picture of...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and the uncle of Anne Boleyn, seeks to add Thomas Cromwell to his entourage. He questions Cromwell about his past, curious that he fought as a soldier for the French, who are now the enemy. Cromwell urges him to seek peace with the French, but Norfolk dismisses this.

Cromwell still attends Wolsey at Esher. Wolsey is glad that Cromwell has managed to procure a seat in Parliament and is ready to defend him against charges of treason, which have already been drawn up.

At the Austin Friars, Cromwell views the Christmas season with sadness. Not only his wife and daughters have died, but also his sister Kat and her husband. Their two sons now live with Cromwell. Gregory, home from...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 3, Chapter 2 Summary

In the Lenten season of 1530, Thomas Cromwell is summoned to York Place, formerly the London residence of Cardinal Wolsey but now the home of Anne Boleyn. Since it is a holy season, King Henry stays away from his mistress, although he had previously held a banquet with her by his side; this infuriated his sister the Duchess of Suffolk and Anne’s aunt the Duchess of Norfolk since Anne took precedence over them.

Now Anne is lonely and hopes that Cromwell will provide some amusement. After he visits with her, he talks to Mary Boleyn, who is contemptuous of her sister. Cromwell hints that Anne might be pregnant, but Mary assures him that they still have not slept together.

Cardinal Wolsey is leaving Esher and...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 3, Chapter 3 Summary

At Austin Friars, the Cromwell household is awakened by a knock on the door. William Brereton of the king’s privy chamber is there with an armed escort. Thomas Cromwell’s first thought is that they have come to arrest him. His family comes downstairs in their nightgowns. Cromwell is reminded of his daughters looking just like that on the night their mother died.

Brereton tells Cromwell that he is to be escorted to the king at Greenwich. His clerk Rafe Sadler, his nephew Richard Cromwell, and his son Gregory accompany him. Cromwell is rowed up the Thames River in the black of night, making him think of the River Styx and the journey to Hades.

Cromwell is escorted alone into the king’s bed chamber. He...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 4, Chapter 1 Summary

Cromwell informs Katherine of Aragon that she is to be moved to Hertfordshire since the king is now the head of the church in England. This law has been amended to say “as far as the law of Christ allows.” Katherine is upset, as is her daughter, Princess Mary. Cromwell warns the queen that she and Mary might be separated if she resists.

Cromwell visits Anne Boleyn, and they gossip about the family of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall. Bishop Fisher of Rochester was the target of an assassination attempt when someone tried to poison the broth at a banquet he was giving. The cook said that someone gave him a packet of white powder to put in the broth as a joke, but the cook was boiled alive...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 4, Chapter 2 Summary

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, has come out on the opposite side of the king, but Henry is reluctant to remove him at this time. Parliament, at Cromwell’s urging, has suspended payments to the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. Cromwell had the vote taken by having the members sit on opposite sides of the hall so he could see his enemies.

York Place, Anne Boleyn’s residence, is still being remodeled to her satisfaction and renamed Whitehall. Cromwell becomes even more indispensable to Anne, as her sister Mary assures him. Cromwell tells her that he wants an official position in the royal household.

Thomas Wyatt tells Cromwell that, if Anne Boleyn is not a virgin, it is not because of him. He was...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 4, Chapter 3 Summary

Thomas Cromwell does not sleep well the night after it is reported that King Henry VIII and Lady Anne Boleyn secretly married and spent the night together for the first time. Rafe Sadler, his private clerk, awakens him the next morning, explaining that he did not want to since Cromwell hardly ever sleeps late and thus must have some reason for sleeping in. It is seven o’clock, and King Henry already has gone to Mass in the church at Calais. Cromwell rises slowly, having slept, he thinks, in a bed of phantoms. He still must see the king and determine the truth of the assumption of his marriage.

The wind and the rain match his mood. He tells Rafe that they may be in Calais for some time. He thinks back to five years...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 5, Chapter 1 Summary

On January 25, 1533, on their return to England from Calais, King Henry and Anne Boleyn are married (again) at the chapel at Whitehall. Thomas Cranmer is now the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon it is revealed that Anne is pregnant with her first child, even before her new status of Queen of England becomes known. Anne tells Cromwell that she is tired of her sister Mary and thinks it is time that she is married off. She suggests Cromwell’s nephew Richard.

Cromwell visits John Frith (a follower of William Tyndale) in the Tower. He urges Frith to soften his tone in defending himself when he comes before the king so that hopefully Cromwell will manage to get him out to live with him at Austin Friars.


(The entire section is 455 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 5, Chapter 2 Summary

Anne Boleyn gives birth to a girl whom King Henry names Elizabeth. He is jousting when the news of her birth is brought to him. He has no visible reaction in public and does not ask about the health of the mother. Cranmer tries to comfort him by saying that they will be able to make an advantageous marriage for her and that God may have some peculiar blessing planned through her.

Elizabeth Barton, known as the Holy Maid, long has claimed to have visions concerning the future of events in England. She now prophesies Henry’s downfall and imminent death. She is popular with the people, but Henry has grown tired of her negative prophecies about him. Cromwell takes part in her questioning. Eventually, Elizabeth Barton is...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 5, Chapter 3 Summary

Hans Holbein, the famed artist of Tudor royalty and aristocracy, has finished his portrait of Thomas Cromwell. He brings it to Austin Friars, where Cromwell discovers that he is shy about looking at it. His eyes start at the bottom frame and slowly rise. He sees a quill, scissors, papers, his seal, and a Bible. The Bible is not his Bible, since Holbein decided that his own book was too worn and used, so he substituted one bound in blackish green with gilt edges. In fact it is a book on how to take care of books, not the Bible at all.

Cromwell looks at his hand in the portrait and notices that it is smooth “as the skin of a courtesan.” He holds a paper loosely in his fist, but there is a sense of motion. He wears a...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 6, Chapter 1 Summary

King Henry and Charles Brandon discuss early beliefs concerning the lack of scriptural support for the powers of the Catholic Church in its present state. Christ came as a subject to the ruling authorities and so priests should be subject to the prince, whose power comes from parliament: the people. Henry talks with Cromwell about how to transfer the riches of the church to the kingdom.

Cromwell’s home is becoming a popular place for gentlemen to send their sons to learn statecraft. Henry prepares a bill concerning the succession of Anne’s children. Anne is upset at the mention of the possibility of her own death and of Henry’s power to remarry. The changes in England are also a matter for discussion, with Anne...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 6, Chapter 2 Summary

Pope Clement is dead, and the people of Rome break into his tomb and drag his naked body through the streets. Cromwell is made Master of the Rolls. He is accumulating property around the country. Many of Cromwell’s family are moving out of Austin Friars as they form families of their own. He misses his wife Liz and their two daughters as the house begins to empty.

King Henry becomes paranoid, fearful that Katherine will raise a rebellion against him. He is extremely unpopular in Ireland.

Thomas More, who is not faring well under house arrest, is required to swear to the Act of Supremacy, which names the king as the Head of the Church of England. He refuses and is no longer allowed to have visitors. All his...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Wolf Hall Part 6, Chapter 3 Summary

At his trial, Thomas More remains defiant and arrogant to his enemies, even at the expense of alienating them. To some, this self-righteous behavior may seem like righteousness. The Solicitor General, Richard Riche, is furious with him when More suddenly turns on him, reminding Riche that he has known him since he was a boy, when he was a “gamer and a dicer.”

The men on the jury are outraged at this sudden display of emotion on More’s part. This will not do More any good since it is a personal attack. No man should be held up to the sins of his youth. More is firm in his statement that he is innocent of Riche’s accusation of treason against the king. George Boleyn asks More to give his own version of the damning...

(The entire section is 428 words.)