4th Estate (688 pages), 2010
Winner of the 2009 Booker Prize
Wolf Hall is an extraordinary achievement, a character driven epic that follows the travails of Henry VIII as he seeks to divorce Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall is told primarily through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell as he rises from a lowly background to become the king’s chief minister. Mantel successfully creates Cromwell as a sympathetic and intelligent character whose experiences (a commoner from lowly roots who had travelled across Europe as a soldier) set him apart from other courtiers and politicians.
Wolf Hall also highlights the rank hypocrisy of Reformation England. The first Protestants (who import the Bible in English) are executed for heresy by the Catholic Henry VIII. Later, when Henry embraces Protestantism, after his desire to have his marriage annulled by the Vatican fails, it is Catholics who are executed for opposing the king’s crushing of the Catholic Church. Henry VIII’s personal desires continually come before the good of his kingdom. On the one hand you have the rigid principles of Thomas More an avid persecutor of Protestants who is executed after refusing to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. One the other hand you have the unprincipled flip-flopping of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell lies in the middle. He is portrayed as being able to see both sides of the argument. He opposes what he sees as the superstition and avarice of certain sections of the Catholic Church (especially the monasteries) and sympathises with the publication of the Bible in English. However he also disproves of the brutality of the Reformation in England and tries to encourage compromise and avoid bloodshed. It is left to the reader decide if Cromwell is a sincere supporter of the Reformation or if he bends his beliefs to coincide with the easiest path to political power. Wolf Hall is part one of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (Bring Up the Bodies is part two and The Mirror and the Light has yest to be published). The BBC also made an excellent adaptation of Wolf Hall which is worth watching if you’ve read the book.