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Wolf Hall | Context

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Henry VIII and the Church of England

Henry VIII (1491–1547), who took the English throne in 1509, is probably best known for the sequence of events recounted in Wolf Hall. Desperate for a male heir, he changed religion and history when he decided to divorce the first of his six wives, Katherine of Aragon (1485–1536) and marry Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–36). Divorce was forbidden by the Catholic Church, and the pope refused to annul the marriage (say it had not occurred legally). Henry subsequently took drastic measures. He passed an Act of Supremacy that in 1534 made him head of a new church, the Church of England. His Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), granted Henry the annulment he desired, and he duly married Anne Boleyn.

In another attack on Catholicism, German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546) began the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by posting to the door of a church the Ninety-Five Theses. These statements criticized certain Catholic practices and doctrines, especially the selling of indulgences—remittances of temporal punishment (punishment for sin). Luther was excommunicated, but his ideas spread and his followers became known as Protestants. The reasons Henry VIII founded the Church of England were more political than religious, but before he broke from Rome―the seat of the pope and Catholicism's power―Henry was a harsh critic of Martin Luther. Regardless of these changing views, Henry ignited a long and bloody struggle over religion in England.

The Holy Roman Emperor and Tudor England

The Holy Roman Empire was made up of multiethnic territories in Central Europe that came together during the Middle Ages and survived until 1806. The leader of the Holy Roman Empire during the events of Wolf Hall was Emperor Charles V (1500–58), nephew of Katherine of Aragon and also king of Spain. The empire he ruled stretched from Spain to the Netherlands and also included Austria, Naples, and what was then Spanish America. In 1521 the emperor called Martin Luther to an imperial assembly and gave him an opportunity to recant his writing, which Luther rejected. Charles then declared Luther an outlaw and a heretic.

For religious, political, and familial reasons, then, the emperor supported his aunt against King Henry VIII, whose family ruled Tudor England, a period of Welsh-English rule from 1485 to 1603. Ruler of the Catholic Church, Pope Clement VII (1478–1534), was Charles's enemy as a result of the pope's alliance with France in the League of Cognac, a treaty opposing the emperor in his struggle with France over European domination. In 1527 the pope was virtually Charles's prisoner. Unwilling to risk angering the emperor and also intent on upholding the marriage laws of the Church, Clement could not be persuaded to grant the annulment Henry desired.

Mantel and Historical Fiction

Departures from Genre

Early historical fiction by authors such as Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) were noteworthy in showing that characters from real periods of history nevertheless had the potential to change and grow over the course of a novel. Weighed down by an association with romance, the genre gained respect in literary circles with the publication of books such as I, Claudius (1934) by English writer Robert Graves. In 1998 the Modern Library ranked that novel 14th on its list of the 100 best 20th-century novels in the English language. Historical fiction became a wildly successful genre with American writer E.L. Doctorow's sprawling, best-selling Ragtime (1975).

Hilary Mantel observes the tradition of many historical writers in trying to keep as close as possible to the facts of her novel's time period. She said in an interview with the New Yorker that she "insists on getting the historical facts all lined up" on index cards. She is, however, extremely experimental in her use of narrative perspective. The deliberate confusion created by her use of he to refer to her main character is meant to simultaneously deepen the reader's identity with the character and prevent the reader from bringing to the narrative prior knowledge about the era's historical events.

Challenges of Depicting Thomas Cromwell

Mantel is also intrigued by the effort to make villainous characters seem sympathetic. These include Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94), a leader of the French Reign of Terror. This event took place in 1793–94 when the French government executed those suspected of opposition to the French Revolution. Maximilien Robespierre is a character in her novel A Place of Greater Safety. Wolf Hall's Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485–1540) also falls into this category of sympathetic villain. She says, "You're always looking for the untold story ... for what has been repressed politically or repressed psychologically. You are working in the crypt."

With Cromwell, Mantel faced particular challenges. The historical figure's accomplishments began as he overcame an obscure background to become a trusted adviser to King Henry VIII. His towering achievements in Henry's court include the following:

  • He amassed titles including member of King's Council, Vicar General, Lord Privy Seal, Baron Cromwell of Oakham, Lord Great Chamberlain, and Earl of Essex.
  • He used parliamentary authority to dissolve England's monasteries.
  • He helped establish King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.
  • He helped engineer the execution of Anne Boleyn.
  • He helped make the processes of taxation and leases more efficient.
  • He extended the king's authority into northern England, Wales, and Ireland.
Mantel's dual task was to confront the complicated political background and relationships tied to Cromwell's record and also face a literary legacy. In English playwright Robert Bolt's script A Man for All Seasons, first performed on the London stage in 1960 and later a Broadway and film hit, Cromwell is the villain in the story of Sir Thomas More. The play presents More as a saintly martyr and Cromwell as his power-mad opponent. More was in fact canonized—recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church—in 1935. Mantel shifts her audience's sympathies for the two characters in her attempt to humanize Cromwell.
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