Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 604 pp)

Born in 1952, Hilary Mantel is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Mantel began studying at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield where she graduated with a degree in jurisprudence. While employed as a social worker after her studies, Mantel began writing. After a decade of travel with her husband, Mantel published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, in 1985. On the heels of her first novel, Mantel found employment as a film critic for The Spectator. Over the course of her writing career, Mantel has won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Fludd, the Sunday Express Book of the Year for A Place of Greater Safety, the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, the MIND “Book of the Year” for Giving Up the Ghost, and the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. In 2006, Mantel was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

A Consideration of Death

Whether we admit it or not, humanity holds a complicated relationship with death. It hovers as a dark cloud over life. When ignored, death feels abstract and distant; when considered, it ominously taps its fingers and reminds us that every second brings us one step closer to that point of no return.
Despite these feelings of dread, many simultaneously wish death on those who “deserve it”. When Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Twitter-verse created two camps. On one side, people rejoiced in justice but mourned the loss of life. On the other, bloodlust boiled over as retribution found the light of day. For most in current times, this sort of death feels like just deserts.

Henry VIII from the Eyes of Cromwell

With these themes swirling through my mind, I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In this tome, Mantel exhaustively – in both senses of the word – chronicles the beginning stages of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine, separation from the Roman Catholic Church, and marriage to Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.
The book begins with a young Cromwell receiving the brunt of his father’s unjust punishment. This passage sets the stage for what Thomas becomes – a self-starting lawyer who climbed the ranks of England.

Cromwell vs. More

As much as Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s connection to the monarchy, it also portrays the complicated relationship between Cromwell and Thomas More. Where Cromwell wryly plays the “royal game” yet understands the value of human decency, More lives under a principle-based philosophy at home and in court.

Archaic Justice

Although Mantel details the overarching storyline or the era superbly, my thoughts continuously wandered to the antiquated forms of justice presented throughout the book. Our counterparts from the middle ages carried a vast array of creative executions from burning at the stake and boiling people alive to beheading those fortunate enough for a relatively quick and painless end.
In an ironic passage, Mantel writes,

“What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell’s, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid – how, by the dozen? – for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farmworkers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labor is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product?

We don’t have to invite pain in, he thinks. It’s waiting for us: sooner rather than later. Ask the virgins of Rome.

He thinks, also, that people ought to be found better jobs” (72).


Theological Justice

Although this passage hints at Cromwell’s aversion to torturous devices, he remains an individual devoted to the law and therefore, to executing the guilty. But, Cromwell’s duty to the law pales in comparison to More’s senseless joy at the expense of the heretic:

“The word is that the Lord Chancellor has become a master in the twin arts of stretching and compressing the servants of God. When heretics are taken, he stands by at the Tower while the torture is applied. It is reported that in his gatehouse at Chelsea he keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them: the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books to England. They say he uses the whip, the manacles and the torment-frame they call Skeffington’s Daughter. It is a portable device, into which a man is folded, knees to chest, with a hoop of iron across his back; by means of a screw, the hoop is tightened until his ribs crack. It takes art to make sure the man does not suffocate: for if he does, everything he knows is lost” (244-245).

Additionally, Mantel adds a socio-economic angle when she writes about the execution of a lowly nun:

“She has five days to live. The last person she will see as she climbs the ladder is her executioner, holding out his paw. If she cannot pay her way at the last, she may suffer longer than she needs. She had imagined how long it takes to burn, but not how long it takes to choke at the end of a rope. In England there is no mercy for the poor. You pay for everything, even a broken neck” (472).


Are We Much Different than 16th Century England?

Again, it is imperative to remind you that Wolf Hall contains much more than vivid scenes of execution. Yet over the course of reading this book, I found myself torn. It is easy to reject these acts of violence a priori.
From our objective thrones in the 21st century, we rightly judge these acts of punishment to be barbaric.
But on the other hand, I want to know why humanity acted this way. Clearly, certain sections of humankind still view death in some shape or form as a just punishment. Are we really much different than 16th century England?
This question is much more complicated.

The Role of the Church

Clearly, the differences between 16th century England and current times are drastic. First, the view of the human body differs considerably. In the Tudor’s era, the Roman Catholic Church functioned as the sole distributor of grace in its jurisdiction. As such, many believed that salvation occurs only through the gracious actions of church leadership. Additionally, the Church believed that it, as the steward of God’s kingdom on earth, owned the bodies of the flock.
For this reason, those who question the authority of the church faced grave danger because they lived at a time where they had no legal possession of their body. In other words, the church – which carried the rights to the physical sacraments that saved the body – could decide to end a life for the sake of church unity.
Of course, such thoughts feel medieval and heinous, but they emerge from a worldview that considers unity under the one, holy, and catholic church to be the necessary requirements for salvation.

The Virtue of Dialogue and Competing Philosophies

Thus, while the easy analysis breaks down to a thank-God-we-don’t-do-that-anymore statement (if that statement is even true), a more in depth look allows us to profess thankfulness for allowing dialogue and competing philosophies to exist simultaneously.
Mantel’s Man-Booker-winning tome offers a comprehensive look at the political, theological, and romantic aspects of Henry VIII’s complicated monarchy. It provides a fresh perspective by telling the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Of the many facets running through the book, I found myself pondering the views of justice and violence during that time period. Of course, I am glad that we no longer execute citizens for theological disputes. But, I am more grateful for our ability to discuss conflicting views and live together despite our differences. Wolf Hall is well written and well worth your time.

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