Wolf Hall Summary

Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall Summary

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Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall – the first in a trilogy is a biographical account of the rags-to-riches story of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was born in 1485 to a family without name or station. Yet, he would rise to become one of the most powerful men in English political life. Similar to Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, in Wolf Hall, it is Cromwell’s talent for machinations and the gathering of influence that inform most of the novel’s scenes.

As a child, Cromwell is at the mercy of a brutish father, a crude man who beats him frequently. When he can no longer tolerate the abuse, Cromwell flees to Continental Europe. He is gladly accepted by the French army and becomes a mercenary. Before returning home, he will also make a mastery of Italian banking.

Cromwell eventually returns to England and begins practicing law. He is able to set himself apart from his peers with his keen mind and obvious ambition. Before long, he is summoned to meet with Cardinal Wolsey, a man of great influence. Cromwell is soon working exclusively for Wolsey. Wolsey is close to King Henry VIII, who is pursuing the annulment of his marriage to Queen Katherine. Once freed from the strictures of his union with the queen, he will be able to marry Anne Boleyn, whom he hopes will provide him with a male heir.

It is this massive task that the King assigns to Wolsey, who is ultimately incapable of arranging the annulment. The fight for the dissolution of the union is between Wolsey and The Catholic Church, which was at the height of its power. When Wolsey fails, he has made an enemy of Anne Boleyn. She is eventually able to bend the King to her way of thinking. Soon the King accuses Wolsey of treason, despite there being almost no evidence of it. Cromwell leaps into the fray and defends Wolsey with no reluctance.

Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey is unwavering, and does not go unnoticed. When Wolsey dies in 1530, the King has been sufficiently impressed by Cromwell to bring him into his inner circle. By this point, Cromwell has grown shrewd under Wolsey’s tutelage, and he is soon serving as the King’s advisor on issues large and small. Similar to Wormwood in The Lord of the Rings, or Varys in the Game of Thrones novels, Cromwell as the councilor of the King demonstrates the immeasurable power that a subordinate can have when viewed as wiser than the ruler.

The task of annulling the marriage now falls to the resourceful Cromwell. In a bit of masterful, political legerdemain, he manages to find a way. Cromwell argues that much of the Catholic Church lies within England, and is therefore subject to the King’s laws. And as the King, Henry VIII has the right to rewrite the laws as he sees fit. Therefore, if he simply chooses to annul his marriage to the Queen, there is nothing standing in his way.

During the spectacle of Cromwell’s legal maneuvering, the majority of Catholic England rises against them both. Thomas More, the author of the philosophical thought experiment Utopia, is Henry’s Chancellor, and is also one of those most opposed to the King’s upheaval of the integration of church and state. He hounds the King at every step, insisting that he is mistreating the Church and perverting the rightful way of things. Henry eventually has More executed for his continued protests.

In the aftermath of More’s death, the annulment takes place. Near the end of Wolf Hall, the reader learns that Anne Boleyn has failed to produce a male heir, a fact which those close to Henry know will place her in a dangerous position.           At the conclusion of the novel, Cromwell is planning the logistics of the King’s court as they journey across the country on their autumn visits. Cromwell knows that there is much more to do. He is not yet as powerful as he would like to be, and the King is now favoring another woman, which will present new opportunities for Cromwell to prove himself ever more useful.

Hilary Mantel is a masterful historian. Wolf Hall is meticulous in every detail, and it is not at all challenging to believe that it presents that sixteenth century world exactly as it was. Themes of power, integrity, royalty, divine right, and religious fervor run throughout every page. Cromwell’s cunning is the perfect tool with which to show the hypocrisies of the royal court, an ordinary man’s lust for power, and the evolution of the Catholic Church.

Critical reception to Wolf Hall has been almost unequivocally enthusiastic. The book won the prestigious Man Booker Prize and has received rave reviews in most major publications. The second book in the trilogy has been equally lauded, and anticipation for the final book is high.