Literature Study GuidesWolf HallPart 3 Chapter 1 Summary

Wolf Hall | Study Guide

Hilary Mantel

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Wolf Hall | Part 3, Chapter 1 : Three-Card Trick, Winter 1529–Spring 1530 | Summary



Thomas Cromwell, still loyal to Wolsey, comes to the attention of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn's uncle. Cromwell has secured a seat in the House of Commons, and Norfolk suggests he use this position in Parliament to further Norfolk's interests. He also tells Cromwell the king is unhappy with Wolsey (and, by extension, Cromwell) for failing to clinch the deal on the divorce. Furthermore, the king remembers that Cromwell spoke against his war with the French. Cromwell still maintains that diplomacy, not war, is preferable (and less expensive). Norfolk seems fascinated by Cromwell's life story. It isn't every day the son of a blacksmith and former soldier in the French army rises to such a role in England's affairs.

Meanwhile, King Henry's advisers prepare the charges against Wolsey, many of which are for violating obscure statutes. At Esher Wolsey broods on his predicament and becomes more miserable and ill by the hour. Wolsey knows his only hope is to somehow get back into Anne Boleyn's good graces, which is unlikely as the lady wants only one thing: the thing Wolsey failed to give her. But while Anne Boleyn has written Wolsey off, she seems to be taking notice of Cromwell, perhaps considering how to best use him to get what she wants.

At Christmas Wolsey's illness worsens and, from his sick bed, he tells Cromwell to go home to Austin Friars for the holiday. But Austin Friars, despite its festive decorations, brings only painful memories and fresh grief for Cromwell, whose sister and her husband have just died. His son Gregory is growing up and clearly needs guidance, but Cromwell has difficulty connecting with him. He takes Gregory and the other young men of the household to Gray's Inn for the Twelfth Night celebration. However, the festivities include a bawdy, crude play about the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, and Cromwell and his household walk out before it is finished. Back at home, Cromwell's orphaned nephew Richard asks to take Cromwell's last name.

Cromwell meets with King Henry in an attempt to advocate for Wolsey. The two talk about hunting and war. Cromwell—stubborn and logical—maintains that a war would bankrupt the country. Evidently Cromwell makes a good impression on the king, for two days later a delivery of furnishings for Esher arrives, making life more comfortable for the ailing cardinal.

In the spring of 1530 Cromwell goes to dinner at the home of Antonio Bonvisi, a wealthy Italian merchant. Thomas More is also at the dinner and is not happy to see Cromwell there. More leaves the party early, and afterward Bonvisi tells Cromwell the Boleyns are trying to find a way to have the marriage occur without the pope's approval. He also warns him against continuing to help Wolsey, whom everyone knows is finished, and against having dinner with the Boleyns.


The title "Three-Card Trick" weaves throughout the chapter. It is a practical reminder that Cromwell's early days on his own depended on his ability to outfox his opponents. His skill in the three-card trick and in other money-making matters is what allowed him to rise from being the son of a blacksmith to Cardinal Wolsey's clerk and adviser—a path that clearly fascinates Norfolk. Norfolk may see that Cromwell's unconventional background means he has skills that will be useful in other capacities. And so the three-card trick becomes a metaphor of and symbol for the kind of trickery and illusion that seems necessary to succeed at court.

The conversation between Cromwell and Norfolk draws attention back to Cromwell's humble beginnings and the path that brought him to his present position. The trajectory of his life is a steady rise. This is contrasted with the downward trajectory of Wolsey's life. Wolsey, once the king's most trusted adviser and a man of great influence, is now brought low with a long list of charges, including the offense of praemunire—working for a foreign authority and thus against the sovereignty of the English king. The law students' play makes it clear that Wolsey is not expected to recover from his fall from grace. Everyone knows how these affairs end.

There are also foreshadowings that the trajectory of Thomas More's life may also soon be on the downward slope. More and Henry have disagreed about Henry's love of the hunt, a sport More has called "barbaric" but which the king loves. It's a petty disagreement, but it rankles Henry, as if More is saying the king is barbaric. Henry brings this topic up when Cromwell comes to see him, and Cromwell says, "I favor any sport that's cheaper than battle." Cromwell is speaking from experience here. He was a soldier so he doesn't have lofty ideas of what war is. He sees the practical side. Of course, the king likes battle too, but he sees that Cromwell's concern is for the good of the kingdom and the king while More's comment was disdainful. Later in the chapter, at Bonvisi's dinner the conversation includes some subtle one-upping between More and Cromwell and, as the conversation turns to Cardinal Wolsey, outright disagreement. These are just the beginnings of a power struggle between More and Cromwell to shape the future of the nation, but the upward momentum is on Cromwell's side.

Mantel frequently highlights father-son relationships in the novel, which is fitting as it is Henry's deep desire for a son that drives the plot. Here Cromwell talks with his own son Gregory, noticing that his son's hands are "large, white untroubled hands of a gentleman's son." A person's hands are both practically and symbolically connected to their identity—they give clues to occupation and status. This serves as a reminder to Cromwell that his son's experience of life is far different from his own: Cromwell's hands were revealed to be burned, beefy, and scarred in Part 2, Chapter 2 of the novel.

A three-card trick is about fooling others into thinking the wrong card is the correct one. And so Cromwell's skill in presenting an image that is preferable to the truth is part of what makes him a desirable adviser. He acknowledges it in conversation with Henry. The king inquires about reports that Cromwell was "a common soldier" before working for Wolsey. When the king asks if he's been anything else, Cromwell replies, "What would Your Majesty like me to be?" Cromwell is confident in his ability to conform to the king's wishes. He knows how to give the necessary appearance.

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