Poor King Henry. His wife, Katherine of Aragon, has provided him with a daughter, Mary. Now that Katherine is too aged to provide the king with a son, how can he have a legitimate heir?
Given my fascination lately with the Tudor period of English history, and after completing the fictional biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I, I decided it was only natural to turn next to Hilary Mantel’s fictional portrait of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII.
I realize I am late coming to the game in reading “Wolf Hall”. “Wolf Hall” won the Booker prize way back in 2009 and I have come across so many bloggers that rave about this novel. Having looked for it at the local library before (and it is almost *never* on the shelf), I was pleasantly surprised to find it available. The librarian warned me that it takes a little while to ‘get into it’, but, after persevering, she found that could not put it down and read into the early hours of the morning. Well, her experience paralleled my own. It took me about one-third of the way through to become comfortable with the author’s style and the liberal use of the ‘he’ pronoun that is so confusing to so many readers, was a frustration for me also. However when I looked up various reviews I realized that the key would be to read as if reading from Cromwell’s perspective, and that did the trick.
So, back to (the male-heirless) King Henry. Anne Boleyn has caught his eye. He decides his marriage was invalid, being that Katherine of Aragon was married before. However the Pope does not agree and Cardinal Wolsey seems unable to get Henry the dispensation he requires in order to marry Anne (remember, this is 16th century Europe). What to do?
Enter Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell (in this book) is intensely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey, and the reader becomes aware before it happens, of Wolsey’s downfall (there is plenty of foreshadowing to warn the reader of Wolsey’s loss of favor and position). The rest of the novel is about Cromwell’s rise to power in King Henry’s court and all the intrigues and various machinations that accompany this period of history; among them the struggle for power and the conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant Europe. England itself will vacillate (as anyone who knows their world history already knows), between Protestant and Catholic dogma, and the charge of heresy will depend upon whomever happens to be sitting on the throne at the time.
Much of this period written about in Cromwell’s life is not pleasant to read about. Treason was punishable by death, and one had to be careful of how one worded their opinions and whose company they keep (look around you twice!) before voicing them. Cromwell seems to navigate the king’s court with wit, cleverly interpreting moods, gestures, friends and enemies. But for how long can Cromwell himself last in a monarchy that seems fraught with suspicion?
“That night the king withdraws from company early, dismissing even the gentlemen of his privy chamber; only Henry Norris is in and out, trailed by an underling carrying wine, fruit, a large quilt, then a pan of coals; it has turned chilly. The women, in their turn, have become brisk and snappish. Anne’s raised voice has been heard. Doors slam. As he is talking to Thomas Wyatt, Mistress Shelton comes careering toward him. “My lady wants a Bible!”
“Master Cromwell can recite the whole New Testament,” Wyatt says helpfully.
The girl looks agonized. “I think she wants it to swear on.”
“In that case I’m no use to her.”
The rest of the book went quickly and I became quite engrossed with the characters and their motivations. This is not a fast read though! I decided to take my time and enjoy my absorption with this most fascinating era. At first I referred often to the charts at the beginning of the book to figure out who was who, as the author switches names with position interchangeably.
“The hunting season – or at least, the season when the king hunts every day – will soon be over. Whatever is happening elsewhere, whatever deceits and frustrations, you can forget them in the field. The hunter is among the most innocent of men; living in the moment makes him feel pure. When he returns in the evening, his body aches, his mind is full of pictures of leaves and sky; he does not want to read documents. His miseries, his perplexities have receded, and they will stay away, provided – after food and wine, laughter and exchange of stories – he gets up at dawn to do it all over again.
But the winter king, less occupied, will begin to think about his conscience. He will begin to think about his pride. He will begin to prepare the prizes for those who can deliver him results.”
At first seemingly sympathetic to the Catholic cause, Cromwell later on shows his true colors and seems, at least in this portrayal, to be a strong influence to encourage King Henry to promote himself as head over the Pope himself. (The Pope is not a character one would want to emulate though, either). All in all, there are depictions of burnings, beheadings, and imprisonments, and as for Anne Boleyn herself? well, she is greedy, peevish, easily irritated, passionate, conniving and disloyal. King Henry is superstitious and often fearful.
“It seems Henry doesn’t believe in the power of armed guards in locks and keys. He thinks an angel recruited by the Emperor Charles will make them fall away. When he travels, he takes with him a great iron lock, which is affixed to his chamber door by a servant who goes with him for the purpose. His food is tasted for poison and his bed examined, last thing at night, for concealed weapons, such as needles; but even so, he is afraid he will be murdered as he sleeps.”
(I had to ask myself at one point, was there even *one* truly ‘noble’ character in this book?)
Don’t look to “Wolf Hall” for an easy, pleasant or light recreational read (the book opens with Thomas Cromwell as a boy being beaten by his father, possibly a ploy to get the reader’s empathy with the main character.) However, if you would like to be immersed in 16th century England, if you want to learn about the subtle workings at a king’s court, about what they ate at banquets (27 courses? whew!), and if you enjoy reading about manipulative characters, political maneuvers, dukes and earls and power struggles and such, read this book! and before you know it, you will find yourself running to get the next copy in the series; “Bring up the Bodies” (bring it on, Hilary Mantel! here I come).