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Wolf Hall | Quotes


The opening sentence of the book, spoken by Thomas Cromwell's brutal father, both sets the plot in motion and foreshadows the main character's future. From near death, the younger Cromwell will "get up" both literally and figuratively as he uses his natural intelligence to rise in the world.


He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map ... and fix a jury.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 2

This description of Cromwell suits the larger-than-life role he played in real life and in the novel. For a man to rise above his obscure birth and achieve a high court position he must have many, varied talents—some refined and some less so. The description also helps to show readers what Cromwell has become in the 27 years that have passed since Chapter 1.


You don't get on by being bright [or] strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 1

This thought of Cromwell's is prompted by a conversation with Harry Norris, the king's friend who brings Cardinal Wolsey the news that the king bears no persona enmity toward him. It is, he thinks, "what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him." In a world where nothing is simple, you cannot be completely honest.


We don't have to invite pain in ... It's waiting for us: sooner rather than later.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 2

Thomas Cromwell's childhood beatings from his abusive father form the background of his character in the novel and give readers context for Cromwell's actions—both his desire to rise in the world and his (often private and overlooked) compassion for the less fortunate, whom he is continually taking in to his household. He is acquainted with pain and so is puzzled by the desire to inflict unnecessary pain on oneself through the use of self-flagellation devices and hair shirts, which were common at the time.


Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a ... person?

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Part 3, Chapter 1

The Duke of Norfolk is impressed by Thomas Cromwell, but he admits surprise at the fact that such an impressive person comes from such humble beginnings. In the duke's view the movers and shakers of the world ought to come from the nobility, not from the working class. The novel traces this unlikely story—of one who begins without value as a person but grows into being a "person" of great importance. The duke's surprise that Cromwell is a person also develops the theme of identity: Who has value? Are those without value even human, even persons?


Everything Chapuys does ... is like something an actor does.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 1

Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador, provides an example of how those at court can be viewed as playing roles rather than being authentic. Every gesture of Chapuys is deliberate: "When he thinks, he casts his eyes down ... When he sorrows, he sighs. When he is perplexed, he wags his chin." To an extent this theatricality is something all the major players in the novel do. They know the importance of projecting a certain image and go to great lengths to assure this.


There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 2

Although Thomas Cromwell's ambition can be seen as a desire to rise above his family circumstances—a backlash against poverty—they quickly expand. Once he understands that he has the opportunity to actually make lasting change to the way the world is ordered, his ambitions seem to gain fuel. If they live in a world where Anne has the chance to become queen, they might also live in a world where "Cromwell can be Cromwell."


He had gone upstairs and never come down again.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 2

This image—of the young Cromwell working at making calf's-foot jelly and then being called upstairs, echoes the first line of the novel: "So now get up." From the first line and throughout, Cromwell moves ever upward, until he is the one who helps makes the rules for everyone.


What is defined can be redefined, yes?

Princess Mary, Part 4, Chapter 1

This is a central truth in the novel, spoken here by Mary, daughter of Katherine and Henry VIII. She recognizes that definitions are just words, and words can be deployed by anyone, given the right circumstance, to create change. She is defined by Cromwell's legal maneuverings, as an illegitimate child of the king. But later her half-sister Elizabeth is also "redefined" in this way. However, both reign over England in their lifetimes. These words foreshadow Henry's future actions: he will eventually seek to get rid of Anne as he disposed of Katherine.


The blacksmith makes his own tools.

Katherine of Aragon, Part 4, Chapter 1

The women in the novel often see reality more clearly than the men—a fact that Cromwell knows and uses. Here, Katherine recognizes that Cromwell's background in a blacksmith's family is a fitting metaphor for his approach to the tasks given to him by Wolsey and the king. If Cromwell needs tools, he will make them. If he needs laws, he will write them.


A man's power is ... in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face.

Narrator, Part 4, Chapter 2

Thomas Cromwell considers the advantages of refraining from explanations as a strategic principle, noting "it is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal" because in the absence of facts, people will "pour their fears, fantasies, desires" into the gap. He likens this concealment to the image of a man standing partially in shadow—he is all the more frightening because you cannot see his movements or his face.


And perhaps God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess.

Thomas Cranmer, Part 5, Chapter 2

Thomas Cranmer says this as a way of comforting the king after the child he and Anne hoped would be a boy turns out to be a girl. But the words are significant since the child is Elizabeth, who, though unwanted at birth, became one of England's most famous rulers. The "peculiar blessing" is the Elizabethan age.


The stony ground gets the blame.

Thomas Cromwell, Part 5, Chapter 2

Jane Rochford is childless after seven years of marriage. She makes the comment to Cromwell that failure to conceive is always blamed on the woman and never on the man. Cromwell agrees, noting that even in the Bible, the stony ground is blamed when seed does not grow. This refers to Matthew 13:5, the Parable of the Sower.


I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.

Thomas Cromwell, Part 5, Chapter 3

A young boy named Mark thinks Thomas Cromwell looks like a murderer, and the observation bothers Cromwell. He even asks one of his servants if he looks like a murderer. The servant says he doesn't look like a murderer but more like "a man who knows how to cut up a carcass." And he considers asking others the same question.

Later, after he sees his portrait, he concludes he does look like a murderer. His son Gregory is surprised at his surprise, saying, "Did you not know?" A man who sees others clearly, Cromwell only realizes the truth of Mark's comment when he sees himself from the outside. This illustrates the difference between public and private—the appearance and the reality—but it also speaks to Cromwell's power to make life-and-death decisions.


But my sins are my strength ... I hug them close; they're mine.

Narrator, Part 6, Chapter 2

While Cromwell is ill, Cromwell's family thinks he may die and offers to get a priest so he can make a confession before dying. He finds he does not want to get rid of his "sins." They are a feature of his identity—the mistakes he's made are as important as any other part. His sins are a strength, he says, because "others have not even found the opportunity of committing" such sins. His sins show his personal influence and ingenuity, and he dislikes the idea of giving them up.

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