At the novel's beginning Thomas Cromwell escapes his abusive father to stay with his sister, Kat, and her husband. The novel largely skips over his formative years as a soldier in the French army, banker, and law student to focus on his rise to power, first as secretary and lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey and then as adviser to the king. While Cromwell's ability to approach problems rationally and coldly serves his career, Mantel shows his humanity in his love for his wife and children and his devotion to Wolsey.
The novel traces Thomas More's arc from a powerful adviser to the king to a martyr for his religion. More is portrayed as a dogmatic man whose beliefs about God and the Church are unshakable. As long as More's religious activities do not threaten the king's decision to marry Anne Boleyn, all is well. But as Henry VIII begins to drift into opposition to the pope and then actively denounces Rome, More ends up on the wrong side of power. The momentum is with Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, who are able to change the religious landscape of England forever. More is finally tried for treason and executed.
King Henry VIII
In Mantel's hands Henry VIII is a study in opposites: "One fights, one prays for peace." He is a powerful man, and a man used to power and what it brings—getting what he wants. He wants Anne Boleyn. And he is willing to do what it takes to get her. He also wants to stay on God's side. Cromwell provides a way to reconcile both of these needs. Henry VIII is both impulsive and restrained. He seems to listen to Cromwell's reasonable and practical advice. And he, by all accounts, accepts Anne's limits on their sexual relationship, though it drives him crazy. Yet he can't imagine going easy on an opponent in the joust even when it is Cromwell's son, and he quickly loses interest in Anne when she cannot bear a son.
Anne Boleyn comes to King Henry's court and quite soon catches the king's eye. She deploys her charms like an expert fisherman and competently reels in the king. She is portrayed as cold and calculating; while the king is mad with desire, she (according to her sister) allows him access to her body by degrees. Anne and Cromwell strike up a kind of friendship, or at least a mutually beneficial working relationship. They are both people who know what they want and how to get it. They meet together often and discuss the progress of the king's suit to divorce Katherine. This alliance doesn't last forever—Cromwell eventually will help get rid of Anne, too—but it is an important aspect of the novel.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is Cromwell's employer and mentor. Cromwell begins working for the cardinal as a lawyer and clerk at the height of Wolsey's power and wealth. Readers watch through Cromwell's eyes as Wolsey attempts to negotiate and maneuver in order to secure the annulment. Cromwell's loyalty to Wolsey and Wolsey's appreciation for Cromwell's gifts make the cardinal a more sympathetic figure in this portrayal than is sometimes the case. In Shakespeare's Henry VIII, for example, Wolsey is quite a villain. But Mantel helps readers see past the lavish lifestyle and knack for power and behind-the-scenes dealing to a more complex and nuanced man.