Ambition and Intrigue in the Court of Henry VIII

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

I tend to classify my reading into separate categories of “fun books” and “serious literature.” I read a lot from the former category and just a little from the latter. I love historical fiction and always thought of it as “fun,” but at the same time I can’t help but classify Booker Prize winners as “serious literature.”

As a result, even though I kept encountering Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning historical novel Wolf Hall in the bookstore and in my online recommendations, I resisted reading it. I’m glad that the need to find reading matter for a flight to California resolved the conundrum in favor of reading the book sooner rather than later.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s “fixer,” who rose from obscurity to become Chancellor of England. On one level, it is a first-class political thriller. The oft-told but inherently dramatic circumstances of Henry’s quest to declare his marriage to Queen Katherine invalid so that he could marry Anne Boleyn offer plenty of scope for intrigue and double-crosses. The book tells how Cromwell moves gradually to the center of the shifting power web in Henry’s court. Ultimately, he helps to engineer the separation of the Church of England from Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, and he slowly works out a “legal” way to get Henry and Anne married.

In the process, he faces some formidable opponents, of whom Thomas More is the most famous. Indeed, Cromwell is the unprincipled bad guy in the play A Man for All Seasons, pushing More to compromise his principles and accept the Boleyn marriage and Henry’s primacy of the Church. Mantel gives Cromwell his revenge by casting More as a self-righteous, hair-shirted inquisitor who sends his fellow Englishmen to the stake on matters of doctrine. More’s execution is a political triumph for Cromwell and, given More’s portrayal, a fair turnabout.

What I find fascinating about Mantel’s book is that, despite hearing the story from Cromwell’s point of view, I still can’t really figure him out. Cromwell has often been portrayed as a villain – a sort of Beria of Henry’s reign. In Mantel’s book, Cromwell is driven by a complicated mix of personal loyalty to his family, to Cardinal Wolsey, and then Henry; sympathy with Tyndale and other reformers of the Church; ambition; desire; and personal grudges. Some reviewers have described Mantel’s Cromwell as “humane,” but I have mixed feelings. Cromwell has sympathy for More, for example, but he steadily pushes him into a position where More must yield on principle or die.

The interaction between Cromwell and Anne Boleyn further exemplifies the mysteries of Cromwell’s character. Mantel’s Boleyn is terrifying. Utterly sure of herself, willing to use her body to manipulate Henry in the most ruthless way, and making use of everyone close to her, including her sister, in pursuit of her goal of removing Queen Katherine and supplanting her. Any rational man – and Cromwell is nothing if not rational – would naturally flee from her.

Instead, he plays a complicated double game, using the King’s desire for Anne to advance his own political goals of reforming the church and, maybe, settling some old scores with enemies of his former patron Cardinal Wolsey. Among the many mysteries of the book, for me, is whether Cromwell himself finds Anne desirable.

You can learn from Wikipedia what happens to Cromwell in the end, but the book finishes far short of the ultimate resolution of the story. I’m desperate for the sequel, because even though I know how the story turns out, I still don’t feel like I have a grip on the character of Cromwell. I also need to understand the book’s title, which seems to be a very tricky pun.

I started this blog entry by classifying historical fiction as “fun.” For purposes of stimulating conversation, here are a few of my favorite historical novels.

●     The Horatio Hornblower novels, by C.S. Forester

●     The Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien

●     Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo novels and the Lymond Chronicles

●     Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour (the best, in my opinion, of her many historical novels)

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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