The Man with the Wind at His Heels: On Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster Wolf Hall trilogy traces the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Elliot Jordan follows along with his journey and, through Mantel’s literary prowess, grows to sympathize with the unexpectedly progressive and otherwise unsavory character from one of the most infamous periods in British history.
Last year, at a pre-COVID social gathering, I recall being asked by someone over dinner what the last piece of literature was that brought me to tears. I can’t remember how I responded at the time, but if asked today I know exactly what I would say, and I would be telling the truth: the execution scene at the end of The Mirror and the Light, the hotly anticipated finale to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. The person being executed is of course the man whom Mantel has by that point spent three very hefty novels bringing to life: Henry VIII’s chief minister and eminence grise behind the Tudor revolution, Thomas Cromwell, who was beheaded on the orders of the monarch he had spent much of his life serving. He is not, on the face of it, an especially easy man to feel sorry for.
Even today, the Tudor period is one of the few periods taught universally to schoolchildren in Britain, and one of the few pre-1900 historical topics guaranteed to pick up respectable sales in High Street bookshops. It was a time in which many of the institutions and characteristics of modern England were created, as the country broke with its medieval past and took the first steps on its road to global dominance. England under this most unlikely of ruling houses retains an image in which the medieval and the modern blend together. On one hand, we find fortified manor houses and knights jousting on horseback, and on the other, the democratisation of thought by printing and contact with the world of the European Renaissance, the glories of Holbein and the palaces, a rapidly centralising and increasingly self-confident government and, of course, an unparalleled golden age of literature whose leading lights are far too obvious to name. Seemingly everything about Britain at the height of her power, from the empire to the King James Bible, would appear to be rooted in the Tudor dawn.
Against all of this, the figure of Henry VIII stands in a dominant yet awkward position. As with all his subjects, Holbein managed at once to capture him perfectly and set the tone for our modern understanding of him and his world – the vast, majestic bulk turned directly towards the viewer, the resplendent, heavy clothing and jewels, the thrusting codpiece and the regal stance. Geoffrey Hill, in his customary tone, described the portrait as ‘Hercules mated with the Hydra/this king of bloody trunks, their monster child’. Hill exaggerated, but it seems that Henry’s rule doesn’t require too much exaggeration to be described, at least for his inner circle, as a reign of terror. He remains most famous for having executed two of his wives and many of his underlings and is often seen – incorrectly – as wrenching the English church out of Roman control on his sexual whims while being unable to see beyond the next sumptuous banquet or fumble with a mistress. ‘A blot of blood and grease on the history of England’, Dickens called him, and the modern stereotype of his reign of excesses remains roughly conforming with that notion; perhaps this explains why he is probably the only pre-1800 monarch of whom the average person can recognise a picture. In that context, it seems hard to imagine oneself not only liking but sympathising with Thomas Cromwell, the mover and shaker behind many of Henry’s decrees. With an obscure birth and a mysterious early life that may have involved a spell as a mercenary in the blood-and-plunder-soaked Italian Wars, Cromwell emerges onto the scene in the 1520s as a legal eagle and self-confident workaholic under the direction of Cardinal Wolsey, one of the many figures of the period to earn firstly Henry’s love, and then his odium. Wolsey’s great dramatic depiction was of course in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a play so neglected that one regularly meets English Literature students who were wholly unaware it existed; to an extent this is understandable, given that the subject matter was sufficiently politically ‘hot’ for the bard to pull many of his artistic punches. But Wolsey seems to almost set the terms of Mantel’s depiction of his protege Cromwell when he declares, on his way to ignominy and death under Henry’s henchmen:
I taught thee,
Say, Wolsey, that once trod the ways of glory,
And sounded all the depths and shoals of honour,
Found thee a way, out of his wreck, to rise in;
A sure and safe one, though thy master miss'd it.
Mark but my fall, and that that ruin'd me.
Following in Wolsey’s sumptuous footsteps, Cromwell carefully navigated the factions of Tudor politics and presided over a massive expansion in the financial and legal power of the state, enthusiastically pressing forward the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries – aided in no small part by his own intellectual and spiritual communion with the burgeoning Protestant circles in Europe – and funnelling the money into feeding Henry’s prodigious appetites for wealth and power. In doing so he maneuvered his own factional circles into a dominant position in the Henrician Court, set English policy in dealing with both a fractious nobility and an unprecedentedly chaotic diplomatic world, and managed to pick up a Garter belt and an Earldom. By the time he fell from grace after engineering Henry’s disastrous fourth marriage – and went to the block on the day the king, who hadn’t deigned to be present at the beheading, married his next bride – Cromwell had himself been responsible for the downfall and death of Thomas More, his rival to guide the religious destiny of England. ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die’, declares the author of a rather puerile and rapidly fading series, and it’s tempting to see Cromwell’s execution as a dose of belated karma. The great traditional dramatisation of the period, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, chooses More as its subject and lauds his intransigent martyrdom against rapacious reformers, and views Cromwell as having ‘a self-conceit that can cradle gross crimes in the name of effective action’. The original, far better ending of the play has Cromwell leaving the stage after More’s death sentence with an excellent description: ‘the self-mocking, self-indulgent, rather rueful laughter of the men who know what the world is and how to be comfortable in it’. The message is clear; More was a spiritually and personally innocent soul too good for the corruption of this world, while Cromwell was the realpolitik-riding purveyor of corrupt tyranny:
His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury
Yet anyone who seriously reads Wolf Hall – or, even better, who has the fortitude to read Mantel’s trilogy in its entirety – will end up with a very different picture of the man. The series isn’t simply about Cromwell, it actually takes us directly into his head, and the story of his rise and fall is told with minute detail in which the swirling political battles around him take second place to his own feelings and emotions. The result is less a portrayal of the Henrician era – the lack of description of which is at times intensely frustrating – and more a portrait of a human being. Mantel’s brilliance is to take a figure one immediately associates with power, pomp and punishment – one who glowers angrily in another of Holbein’s superb portraits, in contrast to the worldly, sophisticated More at whom he can be imagined to be staring – and render him human. When Wolsey falls from power, Cromwell appears not as a conniving spiv but as a scared young man:
But he is crying again. The ghosts are gathering, he feels cold, his position is irretrievable. In Italy he learned a memory system, so he can remember everything: every stage of how he got here. ‘I think,’ he says, ‘I should go after him.’
‘Please,’ says Cavendish, ‘not before dinner?’
‘Because we need to think about how to pay off my lord’s servants.’
A moment passes. He enfolds the prayer book to himself; he holds it in his arms. Cavendish has given him what he needs: an accountancy problem’.
Everything about Wolf Hall is thus focused not outwards, but inwards, on Cromwell and his actions and thoughts. The prose is meditative and surprisingly profound; moments of high political drama are matched with quiet, inward thoughts. Despite his endless march through space and time, Cromwell’s thoughts increasingly turn back – to beatings at the hands of his father, to the Italian Wars:
When in Italy, he had picked up a snake for a bet, he had to hold it till they counted ten. They counted, rather slowly, in the slower languages: eins, zwei, drei...at four, the startled snake flicked his head and bit him. Between four and five he tightened his grip. Now some cried, 'Blood of Christ, drop it!' Some prayed and some swore, some just kept on counting.
Yet Cromwell is constantly marching onwards, impelled by a force reminiscent of the protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another winner of the Man Booker Prize. Both characters are driven by the force that led them to escape brutalisation and obscurity, but there’s much more to it than that: both represent a force of modernity, Wolf Hall’s Cromwell dragging England kicking and screaming into the light of tomorrow and out of the filth and superstition of the medieval past as he balances the books and cleanses the monasteries. Mantel’s genius is to take the very thing that many would instinctively hate about him – that he operates in a world of cynical opportunism and filthy lucre – and turn it into a virtue, making him the true Renaissance man. Cromwell ruminates as he faces one of the trilogy’s many reactionary, snobbish feudal magnates:
‘The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined, from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun...not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus.’
Cromwell’s own obscure birth and bloody early life becomes both a cross to bear in the company of England’s nobility (yet also an asset in giving him the necessary cunning to survive) and his raison d’être as the voice of the modern world. Everything he does is simultaneously an expression of his own personal ‘will to power’, to use the Nietzschean phrase, but also a manifestation of the winds of modernity that he, even in his wet island of fake miracles and aristocrats claiming descent from giants and Trojans, can feel blowing with the force of a whirlwind. This is unashamedly teleological, which probably explains why many serious historians make a point of publicly hating it, but Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is an impressively powerful rehabilitation which takes on Man for All Seasons on its own terms and utterly smashes it. The battle between Cromwell and More is thus less a personal duel than a battle between two worlds, in which More appears not as a martyr for the true religion but as an arrogant, supercilious thug who boasts of his own intellectual refinement and the purity of his own soul while condemning supposed heretics to the horrors of burning at the stake. When he launches into yet another religious monologue, Cromwell interrupts him and speaks with all the force of the past and the future colliding:
'Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will have only the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.'
The trilogy is more or less devoid of humour, as probably befits such a profound, meditative tone, though there are some moments of dry levity – I especially enjoyed a hilarious, almost Wes Anderson-esque moment when the Duke of Norfolk spots the monogrammed initials of Henry and Anne on a stained-glass window after her fall from grace meant that such heraldic symbols of loyalty were to be expunged (You’ve got a bloody HA- HA man!). Much of the backroom back-and-forth between the different factions and rivals of Henry’s Privy Council takes place with a fast-paced, engaging tone almost reminiscent of Armando Ianucci’s work as allies and enemies are made and destroyed. Cromwell, watching someone make a grinding faux pas at court by criticising the father of Henry’s new paramour, reflects to himself:
The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is f****** this man’s daughter’.
Moments like this contrast with the more ruminative tone of much of the book, injecting real energy and reminding us that, despite what More professes to believe, the world does not turn on the axes of philosophical absolutes. This tallies well with Mantel’s depiction of Henry – he appears at times as an immature, petulant overgrown child needing the guiding hand and the reassurance of the grown-up Cromwell:
What if the Irish, what if the Scots, what if it all gets out of hand and we have wars like in Germany and peasants crowning themselves, what if these false prophets, what if Charles overruns me...
When the King has enjoyed his dinner he sits by him and talks softly about himself. The April day, fresh and showery, puts him in mind of the day his father died.
Yet simultaneously Henry is a terrifying, looming presence who with a word or gesture can put a man – or woman – into mortal fear of the rack or the scaffold. The atmosphere of Wolf Hall is as much the smell of blood as that of William Caxton’s ink:
Norfolk himself comes to him, when it is over, and says, Cromwell, I swear upon my life that one of the monks spoke when his heart was out. Jesus, he called, Jesus save us, poor Englishmen.
It isn’t difficult to criticise the Wolf Hall trilogy, and many people like to. The fleeting references to major figures in the narrative mean that one has to have a very thorough understanding of the Henrician period before reading it, and Mantel’s insistence on never referring to Cromwell by name but instead as ‘him’ loses novelty very quickly and at times creates grammatical nightmares. On a somewhat more serious note, many – though by no means all – aspects of Mantel’s Cromwell are rather unsubtle, though this seems to become less of a problem as the meditative, philosophical aspects of the text become increasingly powerful. It’s also worth pointing out that in trying to rehabilitate Cromwell, Mantel is significantly aided by the cultural mores of our era. Robert Bolt championed Thomas More at a time when the hangover from England’s religious past was still strong enough to guarantee a degree of solemn respect among educated audiences for a martyr for Christian principle. Mantel writes in a far more secular age which instinctively agrees with Cromwell’s anti-Catholic diatribes and abhorrence of superstition – and Britain after Thatcher and Blair would seem to be far more fertile for Wolf Hall’s plucky rags-to-riches hero who deftly outmanoeuvres and ridicules the old world of genealogies, arms and the tilt. That’s not to say that this isn’t expressed cleverly, though: Cromwell’s ignorance of his own birthday means that he exists outside the carefully charted medieval universe of star signs and astrological prophecy: ‘I don’t have a natal chart. So I don’t have a fate’.
Fittingly for a work of fiction set in the Tudor period, the Wolf Hall trilogy is really a revenge tragedy. Cromwell’s brutalisation at the hands of his father, depicted in the trilogy’s unforgettable opening in an almost excessively stereotypical vision of medieval filth, provides the impetus that drives him first to Italy, and later to remake the English world in his vision of the clean, modern rule of law. After the death of his beloved mentor Wolsey, Cromwell systematically exacts revenge on those who destroyed him, above all Anne Boleyn, who receives a surprisingly fair treatment from Mantel, and the execution of whom concludes the second book in the trilogy. As is inevitable, over time we find ourselves identifying with Cromwell, partially because we have followed him from childhood, and partially because he represents the winds of modernity at which Mantel regularly hints. His battles are our battles, and if the downside of Mantel’s unremittingly positive and even at times soppy portrayal of the man is that he emerges as an uncomplicated hero, the dividend is that we care about him and want him to succeed. This means that as we move through The Mirror and the Light, we are increasingly conscious that time is running out for Cromwell – sooner or later will come his fall from grace and his ignominious death. There’s one moment, done especially well, when he and a rival courtier come to an impasse and we can feel the tension in the room:
As the duke stands up, he stands up too. There is a red blink in the corner of his eye. There is the knife at his heart: cold under his coat, ready in its sheath, and his hand moves to it, as if it acts by its own will.
But Gardiner steps between them. 'No fists today, my lords.'
Fists? He thinks. You don’t know me. I could carve him like a goose, before you were out of your seat.
The vertiginous drop in the stomach one feels several times at this point in the trilogy, and the startling contrast between this and Cromwell’s increasingly prosperous home life – with the Imperial ambassador chasing after his delicacies and a son jousting with peers – reminds us that as a courtier serving Henry VIII, his chances of a peaceful retirement were probably comparable to those of a Politburo member under Stalin. The moment passes and we breathe a sigh of relief, but of course it can’t last. We want Cromwell to vanish, to reappear back in Italy with nothing but his dagger and his wits, but he doesn’t.
‘Admire, exalt-despise-laugh, weep-for here/There is such matter for all feeling’. So declares Byron beholding Rome in Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, and as Cromwell comes to the end of his own pilgrimage, we could say the same about his story. When the downfall comes it engenders a tremendous sense of dread in the reader that few novels can match – the immediate comparison I can think of is Raskolnikov going to the police station in Crime and Punishment, but while he has the chance of imprisonment and redemption, Cromwell doesn’t. If the mark of a great tragedy is that it makes us feel sympathy for people we would instinctively consider beneath contempt – Macbeth being the obvious example – then Wolf Hall certainly qualifies. Then there is the arrest, his incarceration in the tower, the different stages of grief in the words of Cromwell’s devoted followers, the meditation and the day of execution ticking closer and closer:
‘In Italy, when he worked for the bankers, he learned the art of memory...now, sensing he has less than a week to live, he must pick up his images from where he has left them, walking his own inner terrain. He must traverse his whole life, waking and sleeping.
In the dusk the Cardinal returns, as a disturbance in his vision. ‘Where have you been?’ he asks him.
‘I don’t know, Thomas.’ The old man sounds forlorn. ‘I’d tell you if I could.’
It’s difficult not to feel sick to one’s stomach when the penny drops, which it will at this point – if it hasn’t already – that the opening scene of the trilogy, with Cromwell bleeding and broken on the floor, is a horrendous premonition of his end. Mantel doesn’t shy away from the execution, and with an astonishingly potent climax of prose, she creates a scene reminiscent of Carlyle’s immortal description of the death of Louis XVI – yet while Carlyle’s execution scene is dressed in his own commentary, Mantel feels no need to make comments on injustice, letting the tragedy speak for itself. When the day comes, the ruminative, philosophical tone that is constantly lurking closer or further below the surface breaks through in strength, and as Cromwell faces the scaffold, climbs it and kneels down on the block, the prose is drowned in swirling eddies and tides of memory, of his sins, of Italy and of his father:
His father Walter is here, voice in the air. 'So now get up.' He lies broken on the cobbles of the yard of the house where he was born. His whole body is shuddering. 'So now get up. So now get up.' He is very cold. Between a pulse-beat and the next he shifts, going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea. He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the waters salt and fresh.
I’m not ashamed to say that I wept at this, and I defy anyone to follow Cromwell’s journey up to this point, and not to do the same. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy is a work of tremendous power, which constructs a portrait of a man simultaneously blown forwards by the winds of modernity and his own innate power, yet also looking back into his past and that of his country with impressive subtlety. Everyone should read it. As for Cromwell, Mantel fails to resist the temptation to point out in her postscript that just over a century after Thomas’ death, one of Henry’s successors himself faced the executioner’s axe, condemned under the leadership of another Cromwell, a descendant of Mantel’s protagonist. ‘Karma’, indeed. ▲
Elliot Jordan read history at St Andrews and is a postgraduate sixteenth-century history student at Oxford. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.