Early last fall, the Vatican extended a somewhat feline paw in the direction of that rather singular group of Christians sometimes denominated as “Anglo-Catholic.” If this separated flock would rejoin the fold, the word came from Rome, it could be permitted to keep its peculiar English liturgy and even retain the married status of its existing priests. The reclaimed faithful need only forgo the ordination of women and of (I think I should here add the word avowed) homosexuals. This clever overture, evidently long meditated by Pope Benedict XVI as part of his generous approach to other conservative schismatics and former excommunicants like the ultra-right Lefebvrists, was written up mostly as a curiosity; a dawn raid on the much-beset Anglican Communion. In reality, it was another salvo discharged in one of Europe’s most enduring cultural and ideological wars: the one that began when the English Reformation first defied the divine rights of the papacy. On the origins of this once-world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty, Hilary Mantel has written a historical novel of quite astonishing power.
Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.
When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:
He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”
Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.
These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.
And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”
Still, from these extraordinary pages you can learn that it’s very bad to be burned alive on a windy day, because the breeze will keep flicking the flames away from you and thus protract the process. You come to see also how small heresies are bound to lead to bigger ones: Cromwell’s origins are so plebeian that he doesn’t know his own birthday. “I don’t have a natal chart. So I don’t have a fate.” Astrologers for the wealthy are of course eager to make up the difference with their elaborate charts, but the king’s chief minister is not impressed by any “hocus pocus” (the irreverent popular jeer at the hoc est corpus of the Latin Mass). He hears people saying the unsayable—that the sacrament of that Mass is only a scrap of bread—and is unshocked. He tracks down and exposes wonder-working nuns and other charlatans, leftovers from The Canterbury Tales, and instead of hanging or flogging them compels them to confess their fraudulence in public. Most of all, he understands that print is a revolution in itself, and that Thomas More will be defeated not just by William Tyndale but by William Caxton. As he tells the appalled bishop of Winchester:
“Look at any part of this kingdom, my lord bishop, and you will find dereliction, destitution. There are men and women on the roads. The sheep farmers are grown so great that the little man is knocked off his acres and the plowboy is out of house and home. In a generation these people can learn to read. The plowman can take up a book. Believe me, Gardiner, England can be otherwise.”
Part of the greatness of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it has always seemed to me, is its conscious analogy to the English Reformation. The Inner Party is the holder of a secret book, on which profane eyes may not gaze, and the public language of the dictatorship is a jargon designed to obliterate the very possibility of free thought. Regular rituals of execration denounce the infidel and the Evil One. Over the scene rules an Eternal Father, or rather Big Brother. The struggle of the dissenter is to find a tongue in which to speak: a vernacular that is, as the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England so quaintly yet memorably put it, one “understanded of the people.”
Mantel contrives an unusual solution to the problem of idiom. She does not, for the most part, try to have her characters talk in 16th-century English. She does show Thomas More insulated in his library of Greek and Latin and Hebrew texts (and insisting that the great epistle of Saint Paul about “faith, hope, and love” should in English be “faith, hope, and charity”). She gives splendid examples of demotic blasphemy and obscenity from bargemen and publicans, one of the latter bluntly advising Cromwell not to choose a soup course that looks like what’s left over after “a whore’s washed her shift.” And she throws in—occasionally rather jarringly—some current English and even American slang usage. “Cost it out for him,” says Cromwell to Wolsey, proposing that Anne Boleyn’s father be shown the credits and debits. King Henry is described as “cutting a deal” over Church property. Expressions like payoff, pretty much, stuff it, and downturn are employed. Like sprinkles of holy water, even if these do no harm, they do no good, either.
A sequel is plainly in view, as we are given glimpses of the rival daughters who plague the ever-more-gross monarch’s hectic search for male issue. The ginger-haired baby Elizabeth is mainly a squalling infant in the period of the narrative, which chiefly covers the years 1527–35, but in the figure of her sibling Mary, one is given a chilling prefiguration of the coming time when the bonfires of English heretics will really start to blaze in earnest. Mantel is herself of Catholic background and education, and evidently not sorry to be shot of it (as she might herself phrase the matter), so it is generous of her to show the many pettinesses and cruelties with which the future “Bloody Mary” was visited by the callous statecraft and churchmanship of her father’s court. Cromwell is shown trying only to mitigate, not relieve, her plight. And Mary’s icy religiosity he can forgive, but not More’s. Anyone who has been bamboozled by the saccharine propaganda of A Man for All Seasons should read Mantel’s rendering of the confrontation between More and his interlocutors about the Act of Succession, deposing the pope as the supreme head of the Church in England. More discloses himself as a hybrid of Savonarola and Bartleby the Scrivener:
“Let us be clear. You will not take the oath because your conscience advises you against it?”
“Could you be a little more comprehensive in your answers?”
“You object but you won’t say why?”
“Is it the matter of the statute you object to, or the form of the oath, or the business of oath-taking in itself?”
“I would rather not say.”
By this time, any luckless prisoner of More’s would have been stretched naked on the rack, but his questioners persist courteously enough until he suddenly lashes out as the arrogant theocrat he is:
“You say you have the majority. I say I have it. You say Parliament is behind you, and I say all the angels and saints are behind me, and all the company of the Christian dead, for as many generations as there have been since the church of Christ was founded, one body, undivided—”
This casuistry is too much for Cromwell, who loses his composure for the first and only time:
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” he says. “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will have only the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.”
The splendor of this outburst may conceal from the speaker, but not from us, the realization that he, too, will succeed More on the scaffold and that generations of sentimental and clerical history will canonize More while making Cromwell’s name a hissing and a byword.
The means by which Mantel grounds and anchors her action so convincingly in the time she describes, while drawing so easily upon the past and hinting so indirectly at the future, put her in the very first rank of historical novelists. I cannot be quite sure why she leaves out the premonitory stirrings of the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace, the last stand of traditional conservative Catholic England against King Henry (so well caught by John Buchan in The Blanket of the Dark), unless she intends a successor volume. She certainly has the depth and versatility to bring off such a feat. Wolf Hall is a magnificent service to the language and literature whose early emancipation it depicts and also, in its demystifying of one of history’s wickedest men, a service to the justice that Josephine Tey first demanded in The Daughter of Time.