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Last Updated on October 12, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3173

Hilary 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 Cromwell meets with Eustache Chapuy, the ambassador from Emperor Charles V. Cromwell’s frequent sparring partner is Thomas More, the famed clergyman and writer, who succeeded Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. More is an obsessive defender of the Catholic church in England, willing to go to violent ends to stamp out reform. More isn’t aware of the extent of Cromwell’s reformist activities, but he knows the danger Henry and Anne Boleyn pose to Catholic power in England. Cromwell’s allies in the clergy include Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Rowland Lee. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who serves an advisor to Katherine, is a crucial adversary.

Although Henry appears to bend toward the cardinal’s case, Anne Boleyn is implacable in her hatred for Wolsey. As the cardinal journeys north to York, greeting ecstatic crowds along the way, Henry orders Wolsey’s arrest. Coincidentally, or perhaps on purpose, the cardinal falls ill and dies before he can be brought into custody. Soon thereafter Cromwell is called to the king; he fears he is going to be arrested as well. Instead Henry has had a disturbing dream, and he desires Cromwell’s counsel. Later Cromwell is sworn in as a councilor to the king, solidifying his place in Henry’s inner circle.

As the year 1531 begins, Cromwell makes a journey to visit Katherine and her daughter Mary, outcast by Henry while the divorce proceedings continue. Cromwell and Katherine discuss the recent decision appointing Henry head of the Church in England. Katherine may be furious at the late cardinal, but she still believes in the jurisdiction of the church. Mary follows her lead, and will continue to be a staunch Catholic even though Cromwell tries to convince her that it would be to her advantage to work herself back into Henry’s favor.

Meanwhile the turmoil within the church between traditionalists and reformists continues. A priest smuggling versions of Tyndale’s English Bible is arrested and burned at the stake for his crime. In response, someone deploys poison in the kitchen of Bishop Fisher, who had arrested the offending priest. Although two of Fisher’s guests die, Fisher himself survives. Cromwell learns that his friend John Peyt, a grocer and fellow reformist, has been arrested by Thomas More and sent to the Tower of London. Cromwell appeals to Anne Boleyn, who shares his reformist views, for help, but Henry’s mistress claims she is unable to sway the king completely to their side. “Henry has not said no. He had not said, never,” Anne explains.

In spring of 1532 Cromwell is consumed with the legal intricacies of the establishment of Henry as head of the church, including the shifting of revenues and the closing of monasteries. The obstacles to the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn are dwindling. Thomas More comes to visit Cromwell at Austin Friars, and accuses him of negotiating with heretics. But Cromwell is resolute and unshaken. He senses that the balance of power is shifting in his favor.

As the year goes on, Cromwell is successful in passing legislation forcing all bishops to sign a document of submission to the king, but More continues to arrest and punish reformists. A new problem involving Harry Percy, who was once said to be sworn to Anne Boleyn, appears: Percy’s wife wants a divorce, claiming that Percy refuses to recognize their marriage since he believes he is rightfully married to Anne Boleyn. Cromwell diffuses the situation by confronting Percy and convincing him to give up his devotion to Anne Boleyn. A larger problem for Cromwell and the king arises in Eliza Barton, a nun said to be a prophetess. Barton, who claims that if Henry marries Anne he will reign for less than a year, has been taken in by Fisher and other clergyman who are against the divorce.

In the fall of 1532, Anne is named Marquess of Pembroke. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury dies and Thomas Cranmer, one of Cromwell’s reformist allies, is named as the replacement. In October, Henry, Cromwell, and the rest of the English court travel to Calais, a British settlement in France, and later to Paris, for a diplomatic summit. The new alliance with Francis I, King of France, stands to aid Henry in his relationship with Rome; however, Henry brings along Anne Boleyn, which causes controversy from the start. The royal women of France refuse to see Boleyn. At a banquet Anne dances with Francis, incensing Henry. Despite the controversy, the treaty is signed and court returns to England.

In January 1533, with Cromwell’s friend Rowland Lee presiding, Anne and Henry take their marital vows. Anne soon becomes pregnant, and everyone waits to see whether the child will be a boy. But the kingdom is still destabilized from the split within the church. The prophet Eliza Barton continues to rail against Henry and Anne, and she is celebrated by the anti-reformist clergy. Cromwell’s friend and fellow reformist John Frith has been imprisoned at the Tower of London, by Thomas More. Cromwell begs Frith to recant temporarily, and wait for Henry comes around to their point of view, but Frith refuses.

One day at court Anne asks Cromwell to secure a marriage for sister Mary: “She should be married,” Anne says, “and out of my way.” The implication is that Henry has taken up with Mary while Anne is pregnant. Anne suggests that Cromwell’s nephew Richard be engaged to Mary. In April, Anne is prayed for as Queen of England, one more step toward her being officially crowned. But when Cromwell petitions Henry about the marriage between Mary and his nephew Richard, the king decides against it.

Cromwell journeys to visit Katherine, and discusses the court the Archbishop has called in order to sort out the inheritance for Henry’s daughter Mary. Katherine and Mary are again implacable in recognizing what has happened, while Cromwell appeals to them to reconcile with Henry. If Anne Boleyn does not have a son, Henry may choose to recognize Mary as his heir. But, “England is not served by a lie,” Katherine argues.

Anne’s coronation is scheduled for June, and Cromwell goes to visit Thomas More to try to convince him to attend the event. More refuses, and although he acknowledges that Anne is the queen, Cromwell knows that More’s absence from the coronation will rankle Henry. Finally Anne is crowned, with great fanfare, at Westminster. Before the event begins, Cromwell is greeted by Chupuys, the emissary of Charles V, who has become friendly with Cromwell despite the fact that they are on opposing sides of the issue. “Well, you have succeeded where the cardinal failed, Henry has what he wants at last,” the ambassador congratulates Cromwell; then, weeping, he adds, “I have failed my master the Emperor. I have failed Katherine.”

Even with Anne’s coronation and Henry’s triumph, Cromwell’s work is never done. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, confesses to Cromwell that he has a secret wife (Catholic priests are not allowed to marry), and that she is pregnant. Cromwell arranges for Cranmer’s wife to be transported somewhere safe, and cared for by Helen, a women he had rescued from an abusive husband and who had been living at Austin Friars and who, apparently, has become involved with Rafe, Cromwell’s most trusted aide.

Later in 1533, the news arrives which everyone surrounding the king has feared: Anne has given birth to a baby girl. Henry takes the news in stride, but it is clear is he devastated to be once again without hope of a male heir. Cromwell tries to comfort Henry, but he has bigger problems to deal with. The so-called prophetess Eliza Barton, who is known around the country as the Maid, has been brought to London to be interrogated.

Cromwell, Cranmer, and Thomas Audley, Thomas More’s successor as Lord Chancellor, meet with Barton in an attempt to discourage her from making her dangerous prophesies and catch her in a lie. Barton has accepted the patronage of Bishop Fisher, Katherine, and other people who aim to profit from her anti-Henry messages, so the men try to prove that she is guilty of treason. They rattle her with their interrogation but she does not admit to making to anything up. But finally, after days of intense conversations, she confesses that her prophesies are complete inventions. After Barton is arrested, Cromwell proceeds to round up the monks and priests who applauded her, each of whom can be tried for treason by association.

The section describing the year of 1534 is titled “Supremacy,” a fitting name considering that Cromwell reaches the height of their powers during this period. Cromwell attempts to bring Henry around to the view that his power comes not from God, but from the people of England. Cromwell creates a legal document providing Henry the right to marry another queen in the event of Anne’s death and bestow the right to the throne to any male heirs another queen might bear him. Anne is offended by the document, but Cromwell placates her with the provision that if Henry should die without a male heir, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth will ascend to the throne. Katherine’s daughter Mary, Cromwell promises, has been cut from the line of succession.

The next step in Henry’s wresting power from the church in England is an act of Parliament requiring all clergymen to swear an oath to the royal family. Cromwell believes this will drive a permanent wedge between reformists and anti-reformists, and place the royal power formally on the side of the reformists. Eliza Barton and her allies are brought to trial, and the nun is executed.

Later in 1534, Henry offers Cromwell the post of Lord Chancellor, but Cromwell takes the less prominent position of Master of the Rolls. Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, sentenced along with Barton, have a chance to be pardoned if they swear allegiance to the king. But the strident Catholics refuse, and so they are prepared to be executed. Cromwell tries his hardest to convince Thomas More to swear the oath and save himself. Even though More has long been one of Cromwell’s strictest adversaries, Cromwell knows that the execution of such a popular, revered figure as More will reflect poorly on the king.

The novel ends on the evening of More’s execution. Cromwell has reached the heights of power in royal England and decides to take a much-needed, and long-put-off, vacation. He plans to ride to the titular Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne that Cromwell has become interested in.

Mantel’s choosing to title the novel Wolf Hall, as well as end it with Cromwell visiting the home of Jane Seymour, adds an ominous historical perspective to the novel’s portrayal of Cromwell. Even though Cromwell seems to be untouchable as Wolf Hall ends (ensconced within the power circle of Henry VIII and pushing further the reformation of the English church), the historical record shows that his power has in fact peaked. Later Cromwell will be executed by Henry and the Catholic church will return briefly to power under the reign of Henry’s daughter Mary before the ascension of Elizabeth I finally brings stability to the country.

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