Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thomas Cromwell: a kingmaker and king without a throne


Wolf Hall
A Novel by Hilary Mantel
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. (2009)

Historical fiction isn’t usually on my preferred reading list, but with all of the glowing reviews and literary awards for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In Wolf Hall, there is considerable fuss over politics, religion and Henry VIII’s all-consuming aspiration to produce a male heir. Mantel weaves many storylines into this fine tapestry, but the main story is of Thomas Cromwell and his rise from poverty to one of the most powerful men in England at that time.

The story begins with a severe beating the young Cromwell takes at the hands of his abusive father, a beating that soon leads to his running away from home and learning to survive on his own. Cromwell not only survives, but thrives, using his quick wit and street smarts, eventually learning several languages, developing key business contacts, becoming a lawyer and ingratiating himself into the good graces of the powerful Cardinal Wosley, and later Henry VIII.

Here we are presented with a Cromwell who is calculating and restrained; an influential power broker who prefers working behind the scenes on behalf of his powerful patrons. He is prudent, cunning, manipulative, patient, resourceful and ambitious. In his dealings with priests, ambassadors and royalty, Cromwell comes across as more of efficient administrator than a brutish henchman.

Cromwell’s story is all the more intriguing because it occurs during one of the most transformative epochs in English history, a time when priests, scholars and laypeople everywhere were starting to question the Christian interpretation of the Bible. This is an age in which being caught with an English translation of the Bible (or questioning its teachings) often led to imprisonment, torture and death.

It was also an age when Henry VIII’s patience with Rome was beginning to wear thin. The King resented the Church’s vast wealth and land holdings in England, and the money that continuously flowed from England into Rome’s coffers. He especially resented the Pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment or a divorce from Katherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, who would hopefully bear him a son.

Mantel is a skillful, assured writer who manages to advance her various plot-lines with great bravado. Her writing is elegant, poetic and subtle. In a novel with such breadth, dozens of characters swiftly enter and exit the stage, sometimes too swiftly. Occasionally, I found it a challenge keeping track of who was speaking to whom, and whose thoughts were being explored (a cast of characters at the start serves as a handy reference).

At her best, Mantel demonstrates a great skill in describing the political and religious tensions of the time, and in understanding her characters and their motivations. Here is a guarded Cromwell during one of his early encounters with Henry VIII, trying to surmise what makes the King tick:
 He is startled. Then he understands. Henry wants a conversation on any topic. One that’s nothing to do with love, or hunting, or war. Now that Wolsey’s gone, there not much scope for it; unless you want to talk to a priest of some stripe. And if you send for a priest, what does it come back to? To love; to Anne: and what you want and can’t have.
Wolf Hall covers a lot of ground in this sweeping novel, and Mantel successfully brings to life the many personalities, feuds, jealousies, intrigues and tensions that characterize this fascinating period of English history. At the centre of all this political and religious upheaval, and influencing the course of history, is a confident Thomas Cromwell, a sort of kingmaker and king without a throne.




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