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.)