Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

“It is time to say what England is, her scope and boundaries; not to count and measure her harbor defenses and border walls, but to estimate her capacity for self-rule.  It is time to say what a king is, and what trust and guardianship he owes to his people: what protection from foreign incursions moral and physical, what freedom from the pretensions of those who would like to tell an Englishman how to speak to his God.”

What sets Hilary Mantel’s novel of the reign of King Henry VIII apart from other fictional accountings?  First, it is the perspective.  While the cast of characters remains the same as in historical accounts, Mantel chooses Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to be the king’s most trusted counselor, as the central character.  There have been many depictions of Cromwell, most unflattering, but here Mantel chooses a more human approach.

Second, it is a focus on what was important to England and King Henry VIII.  Other books I’ve read deal with conspiracy, lust and greed.  Wolf Hall shows the king wanting security in establishing an indisputable line of succession, freedom from the growing power of the corrupt papacy, and the ability of his country (and his person) to prosper.  While conspiracy, lust and greed certainly have their roles in this historical drama, the main events of divorce in marriage and of England’s ties to the Catholic church have more to do with security, freedom and prosperity.

The humanistic approach tendered by Mantel is believable in the sense that Cromwell was human, after all.  He probably balanced his love for king and country with his love for self and family, like others before him.  I found her treatment of the characters to be gentle and not forced.  Wolsey and More are not portrayed as evil, nor are they portrayed as saints (although in the case of More, the Catholic Church has since canonized him!).  It is sometimes difficult to look at heresy (it’s outcomes and the means to eradicate it) as a twenty-first century person.  We are quick to judge from our perspective and not from a sixteenth century vantage point.  Mantel simply gives us the facts, which is much appreciated.

The story of the reformation in England is exciting enough on its own. I appreciated Mantel’s unique perspective without an emphasis on the drama that would normally appeal to today’s mass market.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
532 pages
Published in 2009


About Suzanne

I'm a stay-at-home mom with three kids who loves to read.
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