Thomas Cromwell was born near the lowest rung on the English social ladder, but through the relentless force of his inexhaustible and dogged skill and will, he came as close to the top as was possible without displacing his mercurial lord and master, King Henry VIII.
Henry's court never forgave him for proving the merit of a blacksmith's son superior to theirs.
Power was his currency. Had he been born in the United States in the country's latter centuries, he most certainly would have been a Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, a Teddy Roosevelt, Truman or Nixon. At the very least a Rove.
Hilary Mantel is a masterful writer. She imagines it is Cromwell, not cruel, torture fanatic, heretic burning More, who is the man for all seasons.
Mantel takes a much maligned and somewhat forgotten historical figure like Cromwell, who over the centuries has been portrayed as one of English history's villains and makes of him a man who rejected the cards Fortune had given him and played himself out of the muck and into the glittering world of the Tudors.
True, Cromwell was no respecter of title or persons. He deftly removed Katherine from Queen to Dowager, made Princess Mary a bastard. He made the dubious Boleyn girl Queen, over the objections of the entire world, and the God of the land. He oversaw the fall of Thomas More, and the downfall of any enemy, perceived or real, of the realm. Cromwell masterminded the most audacious judicial murder of his time, the downfall and execution of Queen Anne. Not to mention he played hardball with the Pope, and won. Cromwell remade England, and changed the course of the world.
Hilary Mantel breathes a conflicted and complicated, yet always human oxygen into the lungs of Thomas Cromwell and thereby raises him from ignominy. He is a dangerously humorous, sometimes calculated, sometimes vulnerable, greedy and generous, fully realized character you cannot help but admire, if not love.
The Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall lives and breathes England and Henry VIII.
I love his wicked sense of humor, his character defining observances of Uncle Norfolk glaring at the fire as if to ignite it, George Boleyn's penchant for puffing his silks, his creation of teasing stories of pious Cranmer's outrages as Wolsey once told of him. He was fiercely loyal to Wolsey when it was not politically expedient to be so. However, Cromwell was not willing to go down with the ship, he was not a martyr for friendship or his conscience; he saved his own skin and that of his household, and advanced himself during this time. His quiet grief over the fall of his cardinal and the too many deaths of his wife, children, and family felled by the plague, is a telling character trait, for the man, known more as the devil who chased Rome out of every nook and cranny of England, and back to Italy.
So too, is the reality that Cromwell had a long memory, and any slight or cruelty was paid out, no matter how many years he had to wait. And he waited. He was terrifying in his single-minded service to his mercurial king. He cut down anyone or anything that stood between Henry's wishes and his own success.
It is truly sad when Cromwell believes he will outlive his enemies. He believes himself to be indispensable to England and Henry's future. And he is. But Henry is a raging child, who in his fit breaks his favorite toy, then bemoans its loss.
From what English history we know, Cromwell's relentless work to bring England out of the Middle Ages, and grant any wish for his king, will end blood drenched. And badly.
"So now get up"
p. 14 " Kat had given him a holy medal to wear...He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea; a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream."
p. 18 "In the case of his man Cromwell, the cardinal has two jokes, which sometimes unite to form one. The first is that he walks in demanding cherries in April and lettuce in December. The other is that he goes about the countryside committing outrages, and charging them to the cardinal's accounts."
p. 25 "He never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities."
p. 61 "Beneath every history, another history."
p. 91 "Try always, the cardinal says, to find out what people wear under their clothes, for it's not just their skin. Turn the kind inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors; his warm, solid, serpentine flesh."
p 142 "All Hallows Day: grief comes in waves. Now it threatens to capsize him He doesn't believe that the dead come back; but that doesn't stop him from feeling the brush of their fingertips, wing tips, against his shoulder."
p. 189 "There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. a world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn't. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before."
p. 238 "Don't ask, don't get, he thinks."
p. 240 "What was England before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold."
p. 246 "The entertainment is this: a vast scarlet figure, supine, is dragged across the floor, howling, by actors dressed as devils. There are four devils, one for each limb of the dead man. The devils wear masks. They have tridents with which they prick the cardinal, making him twitch and writhe and beg. He had hoped the cardinal died without pain, but Cavendish had said no. He died conscious, talking of the king. He had started out of sleep and said, whose is that shadow on the wall?"
p. 255 "The dead grip the living."
p. 260 "Thomas More says, Now you are a member of the council, I hope you will tell the king what he ought to do, not merely what he can do. If the lion knew his own strength, it would be hard to rule him."
p. 376 " You see this councillor of mine? I warn you, never play any game wit him. for he will not respect your ancestry. He has no coat of arms and no name, but he believes he is bred to win."
p. 437 " Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all."
p. 444 "Death is a japester; call him and he will not come. He is a joker and lurks in the dark, a black cloth over his face."
p. 479 " ...we all walk in circles to our destination."
p. 495 "Henry says, Do what you have to do. I will back you.
It's like hearing words you've waited all your life to hear. it's like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born."
p. 519 "...it's all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it's no good at all if you don't have a plan for tomorrow."
p. 531 "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man."
p. 533 "When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them."
p. 561 "Last week Chapuys said to him, in this kingdom now you are all the cardinal was, and more."
p. 566 "The fate of peoples are mad like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh."
p. 568 "They talk about his heart; he overhears them. He feels they should not: the book of y heart is a private book, it is not an order book left o the counter for any passing clerk to scrawl in."
p. 574 " Henry is frightened of you.
He shakes his head. who frightens the lion of England?"
p. 576 "He reemerges into the world. Knock him down and he will get up. Death has called to inspect him, she has measured him, breathed into his face; walked away again.
p. 580 "I have never understood where the line is drawn, between sacrifice and self-slaughter.
Christ drew it.
You don't see anything wrong wit the comparison?"
p. 583 Anne says, It's all about me...When finally you have out of More what troubles his singular conscience, you will find that what is at the root of it is that he will not bend his knee to my queenship...She is small and white and angry. Long fingers tip to tip, bending each other back; eyes bright."
p. 584 "She suspects, and she is right, that her man Cromwell is more interested in the friendship of the German princes than in an alliance with France; but she has to pick her time for that quarrel, and she says she will have no peace till Fisher is dead, till More is dead. So now she circles the room, agitated, less than regal, and she keeps veering toward Henry, touching his sleeve, touching his hand, and he brushes her away, each time, as if she were a fly.
p. 585 "Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of the realm...I keep you, Master Cromwell , because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. but do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it."
-- "He drew the blind down. I asked him why, ad he said, the goods are taken aways, so now I am closing the shop.
He can hardly bear it, to think of More sitting in the dark."
p. 589 "The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it's just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light preserving ones solitary soul like a flame under a glass...I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better."
p. 591 "It's England against Rome, he says. The living against the dead."
p. 602 "It's the living that turn and chase the dead."
p. 603 "The past moves heavily inside him."
Born in Derbyshire in 1952 and educated in Cheshire, Hilary Mantel read law at the LSE. Married at 20, she finished her degree at Sheffield University. She tried social work, then sold frocks in order to write in the evenings. She lived in Africa in the late Seventies. In 1982 she remarried her husband and his job took them to Saudi Arabia. Her first published novel was Every Day is Mother's Day. She won the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Her other novels include Fludd, The Giant O'Brien and A Place of Greater Safety. A memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, and the short stories Learning To Talk (out in July), are published by Fourth Estate. Hilary Mantel lives with her husband in a flat in a converted lunatic asylum.
Atlantic Magazine - The Men Who Made England
The Guardian - Henry's Fighting Dog
The New Yorker - Tudor Tales
Christian Science Monitor - Wolf Hall