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Wolf Hall – The Tudors and Boleyns under a New Light

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on January 27, 2016
This article was updated on February 13, 2017

The novel by Hilary Mantel – winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 – is a real treat. We may all know the story, but, as it’s told in this version from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell - the son of an intemperate and violent Putney blacksmith - who rose all the way to becoming the king’s master secretary and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom of Henry VIII, it acquires unique undertones, especially due to the richness of details that gives the reader a fuller comprehension of the zeitgeist of the times.

If you were playing truant during high school, you may have missed the exciting History lesson (not!!) on how and why Henry VIII, in the first half of the XVI century, cut his ties with the Catholic Church and became the Head of the Church of England. He wanted to get an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his wife of 20 years – and widow of his brother Arthur – because she didn’t bear him a male heir. Anne Boleyn, whose sister Mary was already one of the king’s mistress, played her cards right, becoming the frontrunner for the post of new queen, enticing the king with the prospect of bearing him a proper male heir.

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Hilary Mantel’s novel, however, does not focus on Henry and Anne, but on Cromwell and what it was like to be a regular person in a world ruled by powerful families, blood lineages, aristocratic titles and connections to the Church. All this is played out against the backdrop of international politics, of a recurring summer plague (the sweats), which can kill people in a matter of hours, the spreading of the “heretic” doctrine of Luther, and the constant threat of an invasion of Europe by infidels (Muslims).

Of course, the parallels with the times today are obvious and they account for a lot of what is interesting in the novel. In addition to that, however, the language is beautiful and the description of the customs and ideas of the time are fascinating. The reader feels transported to a different era, yet the potential for scrutiny and judgment is kept intact, as the story is clearly written from a contemporary point-of-view.

This is a great way not only to enjoy a good story, but to reflect on universal human themes: power, inequality, justice and laws, superstition, religious beliefs, the relationship between men and women, how children are treated, the relationship between older and young people, social classes. Despite the poetic liberties the author will have taken to make the story more interesting and relevant to us, they may even be a better channel for communicating deep truths. Plausibility and storytelling, after all, do not need to stick to the naked facts.

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Here are some of my favorite passages among many you will find in the book.

On parents, children and childhood:

  • Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children? For the first time, the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.
  • There are a number of small boys sitting by the hearth, and, for cash down, they can be induced into scouring and scrubbing; children take readily to novelty, and the idea of cleaning, it seems, is novel to them.
  • Childhood was like that; you are punished, then punished again for protesting. So, one learns not to complain; it is a hard lesson, but one never lost.
  • “Have you ever observed that when a man gets a son he takes all the credit, and when he gets a daughter he blames his wife? And if they do not breed at all, we say it is because her womb is barren. We do not say it is because his seed is bad.” “It’s the same in the gospels. The stony ground gets the blame.”
  • Which is worse, he thinks, to have your daughters dead before you, or to leave them to tidy away your remains?

On the authenticity of relics and antiques in the XVI century:

  • Cavendish jolts up, riding knee-to-knee. “His reliquary!” George is upset, astonished. “To part with it like this! It is a piece of the true Cross!” “We’ll get him another. I know a man in Pisa makes them ten for five florins and a round dozen for cash up front. And you get a certificate with St. Peter’s thumbprint, to say they’re genuine.” “For shame!” Cavendish says, and twitches his horse away.
  • “Well, we had a statue made, a smirking little god with wings, and then we beat it with hammers and chains to make it antique, and we hired a muleteer and drove it to Rome and sold it to a cardinal.” Such a hot day, when they were ushered into his presence: hazy, thunder in the distance, and white dust from building sites hanging in the air. “I remember he had tears in his eyes when he paid us. ‘To think that on these charming little feet and these sweet pinions, the gaze of the Emperor Augustus may have rested.’ When the Portinari boys set off for Florence they were staggering under the weight of their purses.”

On how to succeed in life:

  • Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.
  • But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

On women:

  • “Men say,” Liz reaches for her scissors, “ ‘I can’t endure it when women cry’— just as people say, ‘I can’t endure this wet weather.’ As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.”  "I’ve never made you cry, have I? "Only with laughter,” she says.
  • “I don’t see what you are to do. We know princes please themselves, and usually it’s possible to put some gloss on their actions. But what case can you make for Boleyn’s daughter? What does she bring him? No treaty. No land. No money. How are you to present it as a creditable match at all?”
  • “As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks the man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me. Well, that is their view of the situation.
  • When a woman withdraws to give birth the sun may be shining but the shutters of her room are closed so she can make her own weather. She is kept in the dark so she can dream. Her dreams drift her far away, from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the farther bank, and earth and sky are inseparate; there she must embark toward life and death, a muffled figure in the stern directing the oars. In this vessel prayers are said that men never hear. Bargains are struck between a woman and her God. The river is tidal, and between one feather-stroke and the next, her tide may turn.

On death of loved ones by the plague:

  • The room— which this morning was only their bedroom— is lively with the scent of the herbs they are burning against contagion. They have lit candles at her head and feet. They have bound up her jaw with linen, so already she does not look like herself. She looks like the dead; she looks fearless, and as if she could judge you; she looks flatter and deader than people he has seen on battlefields, with their guts spilled.
  • There is no point in writing the usual directions about mourning clothes, beadsmen, candles. Like all the others touched by this sickness, Liz must be buried quickly. He will not be able to send for Gregory or call the family together. The rule is for the household to hang a bunch of straw outside the door as sign of infection, and then restrict entry for forty days, and go abroad as little as possible.
  • They take comfort from a belief that since the infection killed so many last year, it won’t be so violent this year; which he does not think is necessarily true, and he thinks they seem to be endowing this plague with a human or at least bestial intelligence: the wolf comes down on the sheepfold, but not on the nights when the men with dogs are waiting for him.

On England and the English:

  • The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island. English armies laid waste to the land they moved through. As if systematically, they performed every action proscribed by the codes of chivalry, and broke every one of the laws of war. The battles were nothing; it was what they did between the battles that left its mark. They robbed and raped for forty miles around the line of their march. They burned the crops in the fields, and the houses with the people inside them. They took bribes in coin and in kind and when they were encamped in a district they made the people pay for every day on which they were left unmolested. They killed priests and hung them up naked in the marketplaces. As if they were infidels, they ransacked the churches, packed the chalices in their baggage, fueled their cooking fires with precious books; they scattered relics and stripped altars.
  • There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves an ancient pedigree, like Walter’s, or enter into the service of ancient families. Don’t try to go it alone, or they’ll think you’re pirates.
  • England was always, the cardinal says, a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people, who are working slowly toward their deliverance, and who are visited by God with special tribulations. If England lies under God’s curse, or some evil spell, it has seemed for a time that the spell has been broken, by the golden king and his golden cardinal. But those golden years are over, and this winter the sea will freeze; the people who see it will remember it all their lives.
  • 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, imps with bulging eyes and ducks’ bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metaled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.
  • Beyond the gate, cries and shouts, London never still or quiet; so many in the graveyards, but the living parading in the streets, drunken fighters pitching from London Bridge, sanctuary men stealing out to thieve, Southwark whores bawling out their prices like butchers selling dead flesh.

On the Catholic Church and the doctrine of the heretics:

  • “If you ask me about the monks, I speak from experience, not prejudice, and though I have no doubt that some foundations are well governed, my experience has been of waste and corruption. May I suggest to Your Majesty that, if you wish to see a parade of the seven deadly sins, you do not organize a masque at court but call without notice at a monastery? I have seen monks who live like great lords, on the offerings of poor people who would rather buy a blessing than buy bread, and that is not Christian conduct.
  • What I cannot stomach is hypocrisy, fraud, idleness— their worn-out relics, their threadbare worship, and their lack of invention. When did anything good last come from a monastery? They do not invent, they only repeat, and what they repeat is corrupt. For hundreds of years the monks have held the pen, and what they have written is what we take to be our history, but I do not believe it really is. I believe they have suppressed the history they don’t like, and written one that is favorable to Rome.”
  • These are days of brutal truth from Tyndale. Saints are not your friends and they will not protect you. They cannot help you to salvation. You cannot engage them to your service with prayers and candles, as you might hire a man for the harvest. Christ’s sacrifice was done on Calvary; it is not done in the Mass. Priests cannot help you to Heaven; you need no priest to stand between you and your God. No merits of yours can save you: only the merits of the living Christ.
  • (Thomas) More says it does not matter if you lie to heretics, or trick them into a confession. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed More goes further; it is blessed.
  • “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you?

Netflix is showing an exquisite BBC series based on the novel. It has just won the Golden Globe  for best television limited series. Click on the link below to watch the trailer:


Jorge Sette.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More


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