2009’s Wolf Hall is the first volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
Thomas Cromwell escaped a brutal childhood and rose by dint of great effort to be the highly educated right-hand man to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. It’s a lofty position for such a low-born man and as long as nothing happens to Wolsey, Cromwell’s position is utterly secure.
Vexed at Wolsey’s failure to deliver a divorce, Henry withdraws his favour. Stripped of wealth and position, Wolsey escapes possible execution (Henry likes to accuse people of treason) by dying of natural causes first.
Without his patron, Cromwell’s position is manifestly hopeless.
Or it would be if Cromwell weren’t adept at political maneuvering. Although his low birth means he can never have the formal power that Wolsey enjoyed, that does not mean he cannot enjoy considerable informal power provided he has the favour of the King.
Henry has great need of a brilliant conniver. England’s security (and Henry’s pride) demand a generally accepted heir to the throne (a son for Henry, not yet another civil war between less closely related claimants). Civil war is, as we know, the natural condition for a marginally stable post-Roman rudimentary state.
Why Henry does not have a son is an interesting question. Could be due to Henry, could be due to his wife Katherine of Aragon. Since Henry is unlikely to accept that he is the problem, the obvious solution is to blame Katherine of Aragon. All Henry need do is divorce Katherine and marry some younger, presumably fertile, woman.
Henry has his eye on Anne Boleyn, whose ambitious family is thrilled at the possible match. But divorce … that’s a problem. It’s not a legal option under the canon law of the Catholic Church. The marriage could be annulled; the church is notoriously responsive to bribes and political pressure. But in this case Katherine’s royal Spanish kin have a lot more influence in the Vatican than does Henry.
Henry is determined. It is up to Cromwell to find a way for Henry to marry Anne. Even if he has to upend religion in England to do it.
Full disclosure: I loath the Tudor era and Henry VIII in particular and I might not have read this if it was not a patron request. The Tudors shine, I suppose, against the Plantagenets, who fumbled their way into civil war, or the Stuarts, who also fumbled their way into civil war — thus the quite reasonable view that the English are fundamentally incapable of self-rule and should be under the firm control of some continental polity — but the Tudors were a capricious lot who managed to lose England’s continental holdings and yet somehow come out looking good in British history textbooks. Henry VIII is arguably the worst of them all, spoiled, mercurial, and keen on executing anyone who denies him what he wants.
(He did get what he wanted; it’s just that none of the people of the time [and thus many of the characters in this work] could have known that Anne would provide Henry with the heir he needed. Or could have imagined that England could be led by a queen.)
The word that best describes Cromwell’s world is “precarious.” Cromwell has power and wealth to the extent that his betters permit. If he stumbles, everything he worked for will vanish as quickly as Wolsey’s power and possessions did. Nor are his betters much more secure. Not only could the king turn on them at any moment, but they might die of natural causes equally abruptly. Ill health and disease were rampant and medicine impotent. One might be in perfect health in the morning and dead by the evening. Many of the characters in the book die unexpectedly … including Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth.
Mantel’s narrative takes a Cromwellian point of view. He thought he was doing what had to be done; she allows him his amour propre. We might think his actions questionable (the dissolution of the monasteries enriched Henry’s cronies and arguably made life harder for England’s poor, deprived of monastic charity) but she presents his sometimes-bold decisions as necessary in the merciless political and religious environment in which he lived. It’s a skillful performance, ably supported by her deft prose.