Literature Study GuidesWolf HallPart 2 Chapter 2 Summary

Wolf Hall | Study Guide

Hilary Mantel

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Wolf Hall | Part 2, Chapter 2 : An Occult History of Britain, 1521–1529 | Summary



According to legend, the Tudors are said to descend from a Trojan named Brutus who fought and killed a race of giants. Prince Arthur, a Tudor, married Katherine of Aragon but soon died. Because he died, his brother Henry became king of England.

Twenty-year-old Anne Boleyn comes to court at Christmas of 1521. Rumors say she has pledged herself to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland's heir. However, Cardinal Wolsey has plans to have her marry Butler of Ireland, and Harry Percy is supposed to marry Mary Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury's daughter. Wolsey pressures Thomas Boleyn, Anne's father, to force her and Percy apart, rudely noting the Boleyn family is not noble enough to marry into the Percy family.

Thomas Cromwell, now one of Wolsey's lawyers, tells Wolsey about a rumor that is passing among the women at court: Mary Boleyn, Anne's older sister, is having a secret affair with the king. Cromwell wonders aloud what the Boleyn family will want to get out of the affair, especially if Mary bears the king's child. Later, George Cavendish tells Cromwell that Wolsey argued with Percy about the match and convinced the young lover to give up Anne in favor of Mary Talbot. Cavendish also implies that King Henry had his eye on Anne, even as he was having an affair with her sister, Mary.

In May 1527 Wolsey opens a "secret" court of inquiry "to look into the validity of the king's marriage." Wolsey tells Cromwell about the many pregnancies Katherine has endured, without producing a male heir. King Henry seems to think the lack of male heirs is because of some sin of his or of Katherine's, though Wolsey detects a hint of something "not entirely sincere" when the king speaks of this. For her part Katherine blames Wolsey for escalating the matter. Cromwell admires Katherine's loyalty to Henry. Lady Anne Boleyn, meanwhile, is clearly the object of the king's affections, perhaps lending urgency to the king's desire to set Katherine aside.

The Holy Roman Emperor's troops have ransacked the Holy City and taken the pope prisoner. Emperor Charles is Katherine's nephew, which means King Henry's annulment is stalled. Wolsey considers how to leverage the situation to Henry's advantage. He plans a diplomatic trip to France, hoping for a treaty with King Francis that will help further the king's divorce case.

The sweating sickness sweeps London, and Cromwell's wife, Liz, becomes sick while he is away. By the time he gets home, she is dead. She is buried quickly, and the house is under quarantine because of fears about the contagious illness. Eventually the family is able to have a funeral Mass. Meanwhile, Wolsey returns to England, having had mixed results with the French. Thomas More attempts to befriend Cromwell, and persecutions of heretics continue under More. The king is crazy with desire for Anne Boleyn and will not be content until the divorce occurs.

In 1528 and 1529 the sweating sickness sweeps through again. Cromwell strikes up a friendship with Mary Boleyn. She is a wealth of information about her sister Anne and obviously thinks taking Cromwell as a husband would give her family a shock—a prospect she finds appealing. Cromwell decides he needs to put some distance between himself and the Boleyns. When he learns that Mary is pregnant, he realizes how close he came to raising the king's bastard child as his own. Cromwell's daughters, Anne and Grace, die of the sweating sickness.

The king attempts to prove Katherine was not a virgin when she married him; she makes a statement at her trial. Katherine is sincere and believable, and the trial concludes without a clear win for the king. Having failed, Wolsey falls out of favor with the king, and predators in the court swoop in. He is charged with various crimes and cast from his high office.


This chapter opens with a retelling of a legend that begins with women killing their husbands and ends with Henry VIII ascending the English throne. The use of myth and legend—seen here and in other places in the novel—stresses the importance of history and ancestry to both personal and national identity. It is important to English identity that England has a history dating back to prehistory and rooted in mythology. It is important to the personal identity of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, that he is part of this sweeping narrative of English history. And the genealogy of any individual—how it fits into this sweeping history—affects the person's status in society. That the myth is fantastical is a reminder that fabrication—or at least finesse—is part of establishing social status. A person may build a family tree that looks clear on paper, but the reality of ancestry is far messier. For example, there are plenty of children born out of wedlock—some acknowledged and some unacknowledged. The noble and royal families are all related, so the actual distance between cousins, for example, might be difficult to pin down. A clever lawyer is useful in these circumstances.

In any case, the romantic narrative that the Tudors are descended from a famous mythological hero is preferable to the gritty details of succession, legal claims, and violence that actually make a person king. After all, both Katherine of Aragon's daughter Mary and Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth eventually reign as queens of England, and both are, at various points in their lives, declared illegitimate.

The mythological, or "occult" (as the title of the chapter says), history of England is also set forth as an alternate history to the one imposed by the Church: "There were no priests, no churches and no laws. There was also no way of telling the time." Of course, the Church's history of English royalty does not include murderesses and giants; it includes leaders lifted up or given by God as part of his providence. The novel presents history as if it were stories layered upon one another: "Beneath every history, another history." As time moves forward, new narratives are layered over old ones.

The theme of identity surfaces in this chapter in the most literal of ways. When Thomas Boleyn meets with Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell is present but not fully visible. Boleyn asks "Who's that?" and the cardinal replies "Just one of my legal people" and refers to him as Thomas. Boleyn muses, "Half the world is called Thomas." Both the description of Cromwell being hidden in a shadowy corner and the fact that his first name is among the commonest suggest Cromwell lacks outward defining features. He is hidden from view physically and hidden in a sea of Thomases because his name provides no clues to his identity. This inability of others to see Cromwell clearly is contrasted with Cromwell's own keen sight: "The light is dim, but he, Cromwell, is of very strong sight." So while he can hide in dim light and shadows, he sees clearly in the same conditions. This sharp eye is a metaphor for his ability to "see" what others cannot generally.

This chapter includes an interesting example of the theater motif, as George Cavendish elaborates on the conversation between the cardinal and Harry Percy. To go beyond "the cardinal's chilly and dismissive rendition" of what happened, George has Cromwell role-play with him to reenact the scene, as if it were an entertainment: "Now, which would you like to be? My lord cardinal, or the young heir?" Cromwell recognizes they are making a play out of it, telling George to play the cardinal because Cromwell doesn't "feel equal to it." In a subtle bit of foreshadowing Cromwell's words contradict what eventually does happen, as he takes over Wolsey's "role" as Henry's main advisor. At court, there are roles to play, and people fill those roles. Less important at court are the actual lives of those people.

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