Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel. Published in 2009.

Thomas Cromwell, one of the closest advisers of King Henry VIII, was not well liked by his peers, at least the powerful ones, those whose assessment has been passed down through history. He was unprincipled, we are told: grasping, devious, presumptuously ambitious; a bad man who got what was coming to him when Henry blamed him for the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves and had him beheaded.

But why do we so readily accept the dubious views of Cromwell’s enemies? Novelist Hilary Mantel, drawing on the work of a number of scholars as well as contemporary sources, persuasively recasts the historical figure, her protagonist in Wolf Hall. Her Cromwell lacks not principles but zealotry—all too rare in an age wracked by religious wars. He is indeed ambitious but admirably so, rising from exceedingly humble beginnings to the king’s right hand by virtue of his broad education, financial acumen, and sound judgment. The nobles of the time might sneer at his roots, but why should we? Cromwell is the prototypical self-made man.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still recognizably Cromwell, but seen through new eyes. His alleged vices become virtues; a peek into his family life and background makes him less of a cipher; and in contrast to others of his time—most notably Thomas More—he is a man ahead of it. It’s a fascinating portrait.