Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell and his growing power as adviser to Henry VIII. Cromwell is alone in the world, having lost his wife and family, and is consumed with his quest to rise in Henry's court.
The story deftly shows the political intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. In fact, Cromwell is portrayed as a pragmatic man whose quest for power is conducted with his eyes wide open. He understands the potential dangers in Henry’s court even while he aspires to attain a key role.
Specifically, Cromwell has seen what happens to others who fail the King. For example, despite significant political savvy, Cardinal Wolsey lost Henry’s good will. Cromwell therefore understands what can happen when the fickle and avaricious King changes his views of someone who had once been in his close circle.
Yet Cromwell decides to work with Wolsey. Both men have risen to powerful positions from extremely humble beginnings, and they have formed a bond. The Cardinal was the son of a butcher and Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith.
Much of the political intrigue revolves around Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, but wanted to marry Anne to sire a legitimate male heir and because he was besotted with her.
Henry was not a just ruler, which is clear by his actions—beheading a number of former members of his court and ultimately beheading his own queen, a first in English history. Henry’s treatment of Catherine, who had been his wife for over a decade, was also deplorable. He had her waste away in a cold, drafty castle and refused to allow their daughter Mary to visit her.
But perhaps Cromwell had a vision of an England free from Rome. In fact, once Henry broke away from Rome and created the Church of England, the nation began to evolve as a more developed, and ironically more enlightened one. Under Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, the country found a balance that helped quell religious strife and led to a golden age of literature, poetry, and theater.