Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. 532 pages.
Robert Hutchinson, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. 376 pages.
Reviewed by Susan Altschul
There are two new books on Henry VIII’s indomitable minister Thomas Cromwell, “the most hated man in England.” One is a scholarly biography by Robert Hutchinson of the University of Sussex, the other an inspired interior monologue by Hilary Mantel that won the Man Booker prize in 2009: Wolf Hall. Both books tell the tale vividly: Cromwell’s very humble beginnings as the abused son of a blacksmith, his somewhat shadowy adventures as a soldier in the French army fighting the Spanish in Europe (“the wrong side”) and his subsequent rise to statesmanship at the English court.
Versed in the law, cunning and manipulative, and an adept at the art of torture, Cromwell knew how to lean with the wind and turn any crisis into an opportunity. If Thomas More was the “man for all seasons,” Thomas Cromwell was arguably the spin doctor of 16th-century politics. He had learned at the feet of an expert, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. But Wolsey fell from favour when he failed to get the Pope’s approval for dissolving King Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Within two years Wolsey was dead, his protégé Cromwell left to navigate through the irreconcilable currents of Henry VIII’s wish for a divorce, the resistance of the Pope, the Spanish court and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the self-seeking interference of the French king. Not to mention all the factions swirling about Henry’s court, all the dukes and earls with marriageable daughters and all the religious leaders of different stripes clashing over how to worship. It was a world where no one’s position was safe, and “early retirement” (as well as “divorce”) usually involved a date with the executioner.
In 1975 Neville Williams brought Cromwell’s story to light in a lively and informative double biography called The Cardinal and the Secretary. It was the definitive account for more than 30 years, until both Mantel and Hutchinson pounced on the story and filled in the gaps, each in their distinctive way. As a result, the story now becomes how a man of state walks the tightrope between power and the pit.
Robert Hutchinson, working from original sources, gives us a detailed glimpse of 16th-century England much as Alison Weir does in her many nonfiction books about this period. He takes us inside Cromwell’s house, reads the household accounts over his shoulder, tells us what he ate, what he wore and how he furnished his rooms. Hutchinson explains how bribes were conveyed (often in the fingers of gloves presented as gifts), and shows us what happened to all those unfortunates who were dispossessed as wave after wave of the king’s bullies plundered the monasteries and country houses of England. If we think the Tudor period was disorganized and corrupt, we should have seen it before Cromwell’s many reforms, as Hutchinson shows us through the eyes of those who lived it. Memorably, he describes the popular entertainment of jousting as “Tudor testosterone.”
Hilary Mantel looked for another way to tell the story, and with her poet’s eye and novelist’s skill she has gone inside Cromwell’s head, turning him into a completely understandable, principled and rather likeable human being. In an article in the Sunday Times in April 2009 Mantel wrote,