What’s fascinating about the reign of Henry Tudor, aka Henry the 8th, is that there is a vast number of characters involved in political and passionate intrigues that depending on whom you like or dislike, there are always revolving heroes and villains to root for or deride. In her 2009 Booker award “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel selected one historical personage, Thomas Cromwell, whose determination and singular force of nature changed the face of European politics and portrayed him as a man with an exceptional humanity not often seen in history books.

It was in these first decades of the 16th century that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa; the building of St Peter’s basilica began in Rome; Michelangelo took three years to paint the ceiling of Sistine Chapel; Martin Luther annoyed the pope with the Wittenberg theses; the Edict of Worms condemned Luther; Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the world; and Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Thomas Cromwell, who rose to high-ranking positions in court and became an influential advisor to Henry, started out his early life with resounding kicks in the head and in the guts by his drunkard father. Unwilling to ride out his fate toward such an unpromising and miserable future, young Cromwell took himself off abroad to adventures and wars and in passing educated himself in trade, law, what useful theology and philosophy while mastering French, Italian, and Latin.

Cromwell’s big break of course, was to assist King Henry’s break from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon who after long laboring years did not produce a male heir. Enter Anne Boleyn, whose long rapacious teeth scraped the floors as she machinated to satiate her appetite to become queen. It’s fascinating to watch how one diminutive woman could dangle her supposed virginity as a reward to a temperamental monarch for seven long years until he would marry her. The overriding obstacle to her scheming was the Pope himself, who being Catholic, would not condone a divorce. Cromwell wheeled and dealed. His efforts culminated in the Act of Supremacy which Cromwell drafted and Parliament signed, thereby dispensing England of obeisance to the Church in all matters religious and temporal. Once free from the strictures of the Vatican, Henry got his divorce and could at last reap his treasure trove and at the same time hope to produce a male heir.

But none of this was done in a day, and it took Hilary Mantel almost 700 pages to tell it. This book is not a page-turner, and the author doesn’t intend it to be. Granted, she has the story’s plot, actions, climax, and denouement all worked out for her. But it was her singular skill in breathing life, wit, humor and sardonic reflections into her cast of characters. Mantel depicts the story from Cromwell’s unshifting point of view, which is an impressive feat when there are so many minor and major personages involved.

Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize Award for Hilary Mantel. The title comes from the name of the Seymour family home, whose daughter Jane would eventually displace Anne Boleyn to become another of Henry’s wife. (History books are terrible spoilers). Jane Seymour herself hardly made a significant appearance in this volume but we know her future had much in store for her. That, in itself, is another story.

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
672 pages