We all know the Tudors, don’t we? The blood-thirsty brutes of British history; us descendants of whom are shamelessly proud to acknowledge. Those of us who grew up with the brilliant schooling aid of Horrible Histories will recall the Tudors with a mix of sanguine horror and humour, whilst the lasting image of our most famous Tudor king- the eighth of his name- for me at least, is that of a full-bellied tyrant regally stood with legs astride in silky white tights; one hand holding a glove at waist height, the other resting within reach of a sheathed knife.
It is the court of Henry VIII which provides the backdrop for Hilary Mantel’s epic ficto-biographical account of Thomas Cromwell: one figure that is perhaps a little less studied in our Key Stage 3 class-rooms than Henry. What we loved about the Tudors whilst still in our blazers- the blood, the beheading, the marriage scandals, the wars, the royal successions and claims to the throne- is but a second rate player in Wolf Hall’s theatre.
In this biopic of a lowly-born, Cromwell takes centre stage amidst a cast of royal subjects and it is this commentary of low vs high, peasant vs privileged, pitchfork vs dinner fork that gives Wolf Hall such balance. Of course it is too simple to say that this 600 page epic is a novel of poor vs rich, and we see various battles played out: King vs Pope; Cromwell vs More; Englishness vs everyone else; Man vs Man. But this basic ambivalence helps set the basis for Mantel’s exploration into one of the key figures in Tudor politics and his spectacular rise from low-born to royal advisor.
But Wolf Hall is anything but a historical curiosity; not merely a research project to fill some time and certainly not an attempt at a sincere documentation of historical happenings. Where the Terrible Tudors colours our history texts with a humorous, fat-wedged felt-tip pen, Mantel animates 16th century Britain with the fine brush of wit. But this wit is not confined to the exchanges between Cromwell and his cast, nor those descriptive paragraphs of grand, regal occasions. Some of Mantel’s best outpourings of imagination are in describing to us the stinking world of the masses:
“And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city’s uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes…”
This sentence does not meet a full-stop for a further ten lines, as Mantel sharpens her keen imaginative powers. The paragraph comes in the chapter of Queen Anne’s (yes, that’ll be Anne Boleyn, the second one) coronation and it is not the only occasion that Mantel devotes to the ‘men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams’. Public events -like coronations and more frequently throughout the novel, executions- are used as an opportunity to study the masses. Mantel takes us into the swarming crowds: the sweaty, stink-filled streets of London’s least talked about, and brings them glistening to life, in all their vile unpleasantness.
Cromwell starts his life as one of these ‘colourful’ people, the son of a blacksmith. Mantel introduces us to a boy in the midst of a heavy beating from his father and we are under no illusions for the rest of Wolf Hall that we have just been born into a hellish world. But we watch Cromwell become very much the hero of an age where to rise so spectacularly through the ‘social-ladder’ as our modern go-getter’s would call it, was a thing unheard of. It is Cromwell’s toughness and at times ugliness towards his enemies that puts him in such good-stead in his transformation from low-born to royal aide. And whilst Cromwell climbs the ladder, opponents must fall and he has no issue in ensuring the demise of the likes of Thomas More. In this instance Mantel’s superb ability to enliven the dull pages of history is what keeps the reader turning them: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man”. This is one historical novel that certainly packs bite and keeps us in the bloody jaws of the wolf page-after-page.