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Wolf Hall | Plot Summary

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Summary

Wolf Hall tells the story of how Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rises to power to become one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in King Henry VIII's court. While it contains many flashbacks and begins in 1500, it mainly concerns the years 1527–35, from the meeting of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to the execution of the clergyman Sir Thomas More.

Part 1

The events of Part 1 span the years 1500–27. They follow Thomas Cromwell from age 15, as he lies bloodied and beaten by his father in a courtyard, to about age 42, when he is a prosperous married lawyer. Most of the events between the first and second chapter will be revealed to readers through flashbacks. The chapters in Part 1 focus on establishing Cromwell as a character who is able to use his natural intelligence and understanding of others to overcome his low parentage and rise in the world.

In Part 1 Cromwell is first drawn into King Henry VIII's scheme to have his first marriage, to Katherine of Aragon, annulled so he can marry Anne Boleyn, whom he believes can give him the sons he craves. Cromwell is lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, who has been tasked by the king to persuade the pope to let the marriage be annulled.

Part 1 establishes Cromwell's household at Austin Friars, where his wife, Lizzie, and two of his three children live, and the love between the husband and wife. It also provides backstory about some subplots that will figure in the novel's political maneuvering, particularly the controversy over English scholar and Protestant reformer William Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English.

Part 2

Part 2 mostly takes place in 1529, with flashbacks covering the time period 1521–29. In this part Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, the churchman who keeps the Great Seal of England (used to show the king's approval of state documents), is forced to resign and give up the seal as well as his main residence. Wolsey moves to Esher, another of his residences, and Cromwell manages to get the money needed to furnish the place and pay the cardinal's staff.

Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn, the sister of Mary Boleyn, who is currently the king's mistress, arrives at court. From the beginning controversy and rumor swirl around her. Henry VIII becomes involved with Anne and decides he would prefer her as queen to Katherine, who has failed to give him a male heir. Cardinal Wolsey is given the task of securing the pope's approval to discard Katherine and take Anne as wife. The king claims that Katherine had already consummated a marriage with his older brother, Arthur, before he died, and so is not his lawful wife. This, the king believes, is why God has not allowed Katherine to bear living sons. Wolsey convenes a trial to prove Katherine was not a virgin when she married the king.

Part 3

Part 3 covers events from 1529–30. Wolsey fails to secure the king's divorce. He is therefore targeted for downfall, and Henry's advisers prepare charges to level against him. Cromwell, meanwhile, is attracting the notice of many higher-ups, including Anne Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk, and even the king. Cromwell meets each of these persons, and they are each impressed. Anne, who lives at Cardinal Wolsey's old residence, York Palace, strikes up a friendship with Cromwell. One night Henry has a dream in which his brother, Arthur, comes back to chastise him for being married to Katherine. Cromwell is summoned to comfort the king and suggests Arthur came back in the dream to remind Henry to be a good king and rule well, extending the legacy of the family.

As Cromwell gains fans among the nobility, Wolsey is on his way down in the world. He is eventually arrested and dies shortly afterward.

Part 4

Part 4 spans the years 1531–32. Thomas Cranmer, a clergyman, has put his head together with Cromwell to plan the strategy for paving the way for Henry's divorce and remarriage. Thomas More is zealously pursuing those who support and espouse Protestant beliefs as heretics, having them burned at the stake. This is a tension, because Anne Boleyn is sympathetic to the Protestant arguments and often shares them with the king. Cromwell worries about what will happen if More finds out about Anne's Protestant leanings. Yet bit by bit Anne inches closer to being queen, and eventually Henry and Anne marry—first in secret, then more publicly.

Part 5

The events of Part 5 take place in 1533–34. Thomas Cranmer is poised to become Archbishop of Canterbury, though he is secretly married—something the king would not approve if he knew. Anne's coronation ceremony is planned and executed with great pageantry. Although Anne is aware she has many enemies among the nobles and commoners, she hopes news of her pregnancy will help smooth things over.

However, when Anne delivers the child it is a girl, not the hoped-for boy and heir. She quickly becomes pregnant again, but tension has been introduced to the relationship. She must deliver a male heir in order to please the king.

A young prophetess named Elizabeth Barton prophesies against Anne and Henry, and Cromwell uses this to flush out others that oppose the situation.

Part 6

Part 6 relates the events of 1534–35. Cromwell prepares legislation that would ensure the succession to the throne of Anne's children, and later, legislation that would make the king of England the leader of the Catholic Church in England, taking authority away from the pope.

Pope Clement says that Henry's marriage to Katherine is valid. Those who are aligned with the pope's view of Henry's actions, such as Thomas More and Elizabeth Barton, are condemned, though More's sentence is delayed for a time. Cromwell becomes Master Secretary, then Keeper of the Rolls, then Vicegerent in Spirituals. This allows Cromwell to take wealth from the monasteries for the king's coffers. Anne miscarries. Eventually More is tried and executed.

Wolf Hall Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Thomas Cromwell leaves home after a beating from his father.

Rising Action

2 Anne Boleyn arrives at the court.

3 Henry VIII decides to divorce Katherine and marry Anne.

4 Cardinal Wolsey fails to get the pope to allow the divorce.

5 Cromwell takes over the task of getting Henry's divorce.

6 Thomas More is tracking down heretics and burning them.

7 Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn.

8 Anne has Henry's child, a daughter and a disappointment.

Climax

9 Cromwell devises the Act of Supremacy.

Falling Action

10 More refuses to swear to this new law.

11 Cromwell is appointed Master of the Rolls.

Resolution

12 More is tried and executed for treason.

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