Wolf Hall

Winner of Booker prize, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Just managed to finish Wolf Hall the award winning book by Hilary Mantel. Set in Tudor England it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. I have always been fascinated by history and the Tudor periods is one of the most important for an understanding of Britain.

Out of this period arose colossus such as Cranmer, Shakespeare and Tyndale. Three people who helped to define and mould the English language.

On the political front the rise, starting under Henry VII, of those from none noble backgrounds rose apace (although this can be overdone given how small the nobility was in the 15th century).

And in the background the inherent instability of the monarchs. All the Tudors faced real threats to their thrones and it was unsurprising that Henry VIII was so desperate to have a male heir.

The book is very good, albeit a work of fiction, in portraying the key characters. Thomas More is dealt with more sympathetically than I would but, given the authors Catholic upbringing, far from a hagiography. Henry is given depth, Anne Boleyn as continually plotting.

Thomas Cromwell, Henry viii's minister, subject of book by Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell

Of course, the key character, Thomas Cromwell, emerges a rounded character formed by his upbringing and experiences. Often not given a positive character by many writers (people often compare Thomas More and his principles standing up to Henry VIII to Thomas Cromwell executing the King’s wishes).
But Thomas Cromwell helped to forge a united kingdom in an age of turbulence. He helped to chart a way through the disputes of the 16th century that helped keep England largely stay at peace (especially when you compare this to France and its wars of religion or Germany). No small achievement. He foreshadowed the Elizabethan settlement that meant that England never had the rabid state sponsored anti-clericalism of say France.

The book manages to capture the ups and downs of the era and how quickly one persons fortunes could alter. A fascinating book and worthy winner of last year’s Man Booker prize.

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2 comments on “Wolf Hall

  1. Rosie Edser
    November 4, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    agree it’s a prize-deserving book (once you’ve got the hang of it beign in the third person) and interesting to have some sympathy for Cromwell who after all laid foundations of our modern Civil Service system… but how will the sequel work – “He sees the axe descending… The End”??

  2. Will Cookson
    November 4, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    The third person bit is a bit disconcerting.

    Cromwell certainly went a long way to laying the foundations of a civil service but he was building on the foundations already laid. Henry VII had gone some way in creating a civil service with his ministers Dudley and Empson (even though Henry VIII executed them their work wasn’t all dismantled). Obviously, before Cromwell himself there was Wolsey. Cromwell then stepped things up a gear.

    I agree the sequel’s ending will have to be handled carefully. Maybe that is why she introduced the third person? She might take it up to the night before and then leave it to a postscript? It is a difficult one to handle well – but I am looking forward to it.

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