Wolf Hall Critical Analysis: A Historical Reconstruction of Tomas Cromwell’s Image by Hilary Mantel

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel presented Cromwell as a modern rationalist in renaissance clothing rather than presenting him as he is known to all.

Wolf Hall analysis by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, was considered as best fiction work published after 2000 by The Guardian. TimeSpek has also compiled a list of 50 best novels of the 21st century including authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, Markus Zusak, Phillip Roth or Colson Whitehead, chose the beginning of the trilogy on the rise of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. Apparently, the story is simple but the historical significance makes it important, therefore, Wolf Hall analysis needs proper attention because of the writer’s sense of history that she listens to and talks with herself.

The Background of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Published in 2009, Wolf Hall is a historical novel that talks about Cromwell’s rapid rise after Thomas More’s death. Once a favourite of the king more was arrested in 1533. And he was executed for treason two years later. Wolf Hall, the first in the trilogy about Henry VIII’s prime minister from 1934, won the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Golden Booker. Golden Booker is an award created in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the English literary award. Golden ended up, however, going to Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient”, according to readers’ choice.

Wolf Hall is written in a lyrical way, but at the same time clean and tidy. The writer imagined solidly, but at the same time with scary resonances and sometimes a lot of fun. It is not like anything that exists in contemporary British fiction. It is nothing like the fact that the writer has made Cromwell a “modern rationalist in Renaissance clothing”.

Hilary Mantel published the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2012. The book was also praised by critics, having also been awarded the Booker and two Costa Awards. The third and final volume of the trilogy was published this year, March 5, 2020. Precisely 11 years after Wolf Hall made its journey. As we know the name, The Mirror and the Light.

Synopsis of Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

England, 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne but has no heirs. Cardinal Wolsey is the king’s adviser in charge of obtaining the divorce that the pope refuses to grant. In this environment of distrust Thomas Cromwell appears, first as Wolsey’s secretary, and then as his successor. Cromwell is a very original man. He is the son of a brute blacksmith and a political genius. He can be considered as a briber, a gallant, an upstart, a man with an incredible ability to manipulate people and take advantage of occasions. He is also relentless in pursuing his own interests. Cromwell is unjustly as ambitious in his political goals as in his personal. His reform plan is implemented before a parliament that only looks after its interests and a king that floats between romantic passions and brutal furies.

Wolf Hall Critical Analysis

From one of the best contemporary writers, Wolf Hall explores the intersection of individual psychology with political goals. With a wide variety of characters and a rich succession of incidents, it goes back in history to show us Tudor England as a society in the making, shaping itself with great passion, suffering and courage.

As we already know that Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, won the Booker Prize last year. It is not common with a genre of historical novel that distinguished in this type of awards, even more so in an apparently unanimous way. The fact of having won this prestigious prize is, at the outset, a sign that we are not dealing with a common historical novel. If you read it actually proves it. Wolf Hall was the name of the House of Seymour (Named after Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII), in Wiltshire. But it is also an allusion to the Latin saying “man is a wolf to man”, thus invoking the “swampy” medium in that the main character of this book, Thomas Cromwell, moves.

Much has been written about Henry VIII and his struggle against the Church to achieve the dissolution of marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. According to several historical readings, we find that within this particular period, the only similarity between the history and Wolf Hall is the historical period in which they are situated. If we read “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory the historical facts are different than of Wolf Hall. Because not only is the style of writing which is completely different, but it focuses on Thomas Cromwell. He is a man from the lower class and he rose to the power, becoming one of the most important men in the Kingdom for his influence with Henry VIII.

The book takes place in the 20s and 30s of those centuries. Thomas Cromwell ran away from his tyrant father. Eventually, he appears as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man and, later, becomes an adviser to the king and became one of the most influential men in the country. Thus, the book mixes scenes from Cromwell’s private life with the political games that are taking place. The story picks up the stories of Henry VIII’s rebellion against the Church (and Pope Clement VII in particular), for his willingness to marry Ana Boleyn and to finally be able to have a male child who could inherit his throne. The accuracy of the historical information presented here is remarkable and allows to guess the great research work that was done. In fact, apparently, the author took 5 years to do research for this book.

It is not an easy book to read, a page-turner. This is mainly due to Hilary Mantel’s very peculiar writing style, which often reaches moments of great brilliance, but which is still not very easy to follow. Wolf Hall analysis also becomes tough due to the language and her style of writing. All the aspects, combined with other particularities (such as treating Thomas Cromwell almost always by “he”) requires the constant attention of those who read and makes the book a continuous challenge. Even it is up to the reader, depending on his disposition for this type of reading, not to leave let this challenge go from intellectually interesting to boring.

I was not always in the ideal mood every time I opened this book, so I sometimes approached the political discussions with less interest, often full of subterfuge and indirect. It is not a book that presents all the facts, clear as water, rather for the sake of making a great novel, Mantel had to twist and fabricate many facts.

Written neatly and elegantly, free from gratuitous embellishments, Wolf Hall can boast a wealth of imaginative detail, characterization, plot development against a well-drawn socio-economic background. Mantel does not succumb to the temptation to archaicize the language, and that is certainly appreciated, although there is a faint vintage flavour in the dialogues.

Mantel seems at times to hint at the hackneyed theme of Henry VIII’s lust. On the other hand, the predominant narrative thread is that of Cromwell as a Renaissance man, a defender of humanity, tolerance and education. But historians have transmitted a very different image of Cromwell that differs the image built by Hilary Mantels Wolf Hall trilogy.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: The Historical Fact Check 

While working on the analysis of Wolf Hall, it will not be successful if we do not analyses the historical facts. Undoubtedly, the person who contributed most to making possible the enormous change that the reign of Henry VIII brought about was Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells the story of Cromwell with the generosity of narrative talent. In particular, Cromwell was hated and despised by the Norman nobility. On the other hand, Hilary Mantel’s novel makes a very complete portrait of him, giving him overtones of great humanity from the first page.

The novel is based on rigorous historical research that lasted five years for the writer. And she has chosen to tell one of the most complex moments in English history through the rise to power of a character that historians and storytellers had always relegated to the role of the “villain”, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), powerful and feared advisor to the king.

The first image that we have of him, Cromwell barely gets up. He is badly injured and bloody, after the superb beating that his father Walter, a drunken and violent blacksmith from Putney, has given him. Thomas escapes from his father’s clutches at a very young age. And eventually, after touring half of Europe he prospers to become the king’s chief adviser and transform the medieval structure of the state and bring England into the modern age. This is, of course, a simplification, but in a novel like Wolf Hall, the interpretation of historical data from an academic perspective should matter little to us. The fact that nothing is actually known of Cromwell’s childhood does not mean that Mantel’s reenactment is not in itself fascinating.

Historically, the action properly begins in 1527. Cromwell returns to England and enters the service of Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel makes us see him as a highly enlightened man, knowledgeable in the Italian art of the early Cinquecento and the most important philosophical works of his time. Cromwell is fluent in all European languages ​​and has learned many trades since fleeing from his father.

With some elements of the picaresque genre, Wolf Hall portrays Cromwell’s upward mobility until he became the king’s, right-hand man. According to the novel Cardinal Wolsey failed and was unable to bend Rome’s arm to secure the divorce Henry VIII desired. This very issue later contributed to the cardinal’s death. As Mantel presented, Cromwell was able to use his skills as a lawyer-trained negotiator to take the matter through the channels that best suited the king.

But that path was not without obstacles. In addition to the disdain and contempt of the more traditional nobility, Cromwell had in Thomas More an implacable opponent. The question of the annulment of the first royal marriage is part of a much broader conflict, and in short, it boils down to the clash between the old and the new order. Thus, the Catholic Church sought to protect its economic interests and did so by burning those it identified as heretics for wanting to read the Bible in the language of the people.

Thus, in Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s dream is to liberate England from the feudal yoke of Rome, which has exercised and sadly continues to influence the destinies of other lands and regions. But according to historical facts, he was rather a villain.

Success of Wolf Hall

It would seem impossible to tell something new or different on the historical subject of Cromwell, but Hilary Mantel has certainly succeeded, as demonstrated by the success of the public and critics of Wolf Hall. This novel also won her the prestigious literary prize Man Booker Prize in 2009. The novel is the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume is Bring up the bodies, published in 2012 and also won the Booker Prize like the first one, making the writer the only female writer to have obtained this recognition twice.

Hilary Mantel skillfully mixes public and private, interior analyzes and historically flawless reconstructions, surprises and twists to create a harmonious work, almost a symphony where moments of pause and moments of action alternate and skillfully intertwine. The success of Wolf Hall lies in the reconstruction of the history itself which made Cromwell a Villain. Despite being a historical novel, however, it offers universal insights into the nature, purposes and ethics of power.

Analysis of Characterization of Cromwell in Wolf Hall

Despite the fact that Cromwell being a simple character historically, Hilary Mantel instead makes Cromwell a complex character. Rich in nuances and problems, a man who actually desires power and wealth but also a loyal subject of his king. He is an idealist who sees Henry’s proposals differently. He saw the proposal from a perspective of change and innovation to create a new England, free from the ties that bind it to the papacy and leads to the modern era.

Cromwell’s mysterious past is evoked at times. Through sudden and unexpected flashbacks that seem to surprise the character as much as the reader. Being a son of a blacksmith, he runs away from home very young, earns his living as a mercenary and ends up becoming an employee of the Frescobaldi, famous Florentine bankers. He is self-taught and knows the art of war and the secrets of money. Our character is a man of extraordinary intelligence who overcomes not only the initial disadvantages of his origins but also serious family mourning, to become the trusted adviser to the king. Though, he wants power, of course, and enjoys it, but not only for his own personal gain. Most importantly, he is deeply convinced that he can do the best for his country and that he can contribute to making it better, in every sense.

Thanks to the choice of the writer for narrating the story through Cromwell’s eyes. Because her eyes are capable of reading behind appearances. She presented the characters differently that known to all, who often appear reduced to caricatures or stereotypes. He is completely different from Thomas More, who is not a model of moral consistency and rigour but a real religious fanatic who deliberately chooses martyrdom, and so on.