Wolf Hall | Hilary Mantel #Readalong

Right from page one, it is obvious to see (as I (re)read), that Mantel is setting up the story to show Cromwell in a favourable and sympathetic light. The first chapter of Wolf Hall graphically, and unforgettably, describes a young Thomas Cromwell being severely beaten by his father, Walter. This is not a one-off event and it was a beating that Thomas was lucky to survive.

He is surprised. Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children?

The second chapter jumps ahead to a 40 year old Thomas, working for Cardinal Wolsey in the matter of the King’s marriage to Katherine. Henry has made it clear that he wants the Church and the Court to find that his marriage to Katherine of Spain was illegal and improper.

Cromwell’s low background makes him the butt of many a joke. Lurking in the shadows of a powerful man’s office, is not a comfortable place to be.

It amuses Wolsey, that he doesn’t know his age. The cardinal peers down through the layers of society, to a stratum well below his own, as the butcher’s beef-fed son; to a place where his servant is born, on a day unknown, in deep obscurity. His father was no doubt drunk at his birth; his mother, understandably, was preoccupied.

The third chapter take us into the loving home of Cromwell and his wife Liz. Their home at Austin Friars is shown to be full of love, good humour and family, for not only do they provide a home for their three biological children, but also Liz’s father and his second wife, Liz’s sister and her family, as well as Thomas’ niece from one sister and a nephew from his other sister, plus Rafe Sadler, a young man and now Cromwell’s chief clerk, who Cromwell was given care of many years ago.

Cromwell may have had a tough upbringing, and work a precarious job, but at home he is tender and gentle and a man of his word.

For what’s the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?

If you are not now firmly in Cromwell’s corner, then there is nothing more that Mantel can do.

The rest of Wolf Hall, depicts Cromwell’s rapid rise to become one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and confidantes. The Tudor court is a dangerous place to be. Taking the wrong side can see you imprisoned in the Tower of London, or dead. To survive, one had to learn to be adaptable, flexible and willing to change course at short notice. Friendships and loyalty meant little in the end, when the difference could be whether you kept your head or not.

The time period in question, is between 1527 and 1535, with some brief trips back to events that occurred prior to this story.

The first part of the book is heavy with history and titles as Mantel guides us through how King Henry VIII got to the point of wanting to discard his wife of twenty years for a younger (more fertile) model. My Wolf Hall Companion helped to sort out some of the loose threads, but both simply highlighted how the Tudor Court was rife with power plays, intrigue and favours. Gossip could make or break you. In the end, everything rested on the whim of the King.

The second part of Wolf Hall reveals how Cromwell has learnt to read and assess the King’s moods, to anticipate his needs and to find solutions to his problems.

One of the threads running through Wolf Hall (besides the many comments about fabric, cloth, clothes and weaving) are the jokes and snide asides about Cromwell’s history, from his low birth to the supposed dastardly deeds he performed when he ran away to Europe. So much speculation, rumour and assumption runs through Henry’s court, that it can be hard to see where the truth actually lies. Even though we respect and even love Mantel’s version of Cromwell, we do come to wonder about the veracity of his memory and what he may be keeping from others as well as himself.

He Thomas, also Tomoso, Tommaso, and Thomaes Cromwell…Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?

He certainly seems to enjoy all the stories told about him, and the nastier the better, for helping him to do his job in helping the king to get what he wants.

The slippery moral conduct and hypocrisy of those at court always astounds me. From Henry discarding a wife that hadn’t borne him a son and heir, on the grounds that his fifteen year old brother consummated his marriage with Katherine before he died. She said he didn’t, but it’s the same old story of he said/she said and the he said wins out. Even though Henry found it convenient to believe her for twenty years of marriage.

Then rumour has it that Henry lost his own virginity to Elizabeth Boleyn…Anne’s mother! Ugh! And while Anne is pregnant with Elizabeth, it seems that Henry enjoyed sexual relations with Anne’s sister to protect Anne’s delicate state! So, it’s okay for Henry to have relations with two siblings, but not for Katherine. Hmmm.

On feminism:

‘If he tries this, ‘ she says, ‘then half the people in the world will be against it….’

He doesn’t say, which people, but waits for Liz to tell him. ‘All women,’ she says. ‘All women everywhere in England. All women who have a daughter but no son. All women who have lost a child. All women who have lost hope of having a child. All women who are forty.’

On religion:

With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.

On imagery/symbolism:

Laughing, the cardinal pushes back his chair, and his shadow rises with him. Firelit, it leaps. His arm darts out, his reach is long, his hand is like the hand of God.

On Thomas, the man, grieving:

  • There are moments when a memory moves right through you.
  • If I had seen your death coming, I would have taken him and beaten him in his death’s head.
  • When he wakes he has to learn the lack of her all over again.
  • His suppressed grief becomes anger. But what can he do with anger? It also must be suppressed.
  • It is the only honest thing to be done: look after your own children.

On the English:

The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.

There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old.

On art:

Entering the house, you meet the family hanging up. You see them painted life-size before you meet them in the flesh; and More, conscious of the double effect it makes, pauses, to let you survey them, to take them in. The favourite, Meg, sits at her father’s feet with a book on her knees. Gathered loosely around the Lord Chancellor are his son John; his ward Anne Cresacre, who is John’s wife; Margaret Giggs, who is also his ward; his aged father, Sir John More; his daughters Cicely and Elizabeth; Pattison with goggle eyes; and his wife Alice, with lowered head and wearing a cross, at the end of the picture. Master Holbein has grouped them under his gaze, and fixed them for ever; as long as no moth consumes, no flame or mould or blight.”

On Praemunire:

The Statute of Praemunire was an Act of the Parliament of England enacted in 1392, during the reign of Richard II. Its intention was to limit the powers of the papacy in England, by making it illegal to appeal an English court case to the pope if the king objected, or for anyone to act in a way that recognized papal authority over the authority of the king. This was later reaffirmed by the Statute in Restraint of Appeals (Ecclesiastical Appeals Act 1532) in the reign of Henry VIII and was used to remove Thomas Wolsey from power. 


So although Henry is often credited with creating the schism with Rome and the Pope, concerns about Papal authority in England existed for over a hundred years prior to his reign.

On childhood:

Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of ourselves for having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had any choice.

On relationships:

‘I was always desired. But now I am valued. And that is a different thing, I find.’

On precariousness:

all our lives and fortunes depend now on that lady, and as well as muatble she is mortal, and the whole history of the king’s marriage tells us a child in the womb is not an heir in the cradle.

On reading:

‘Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all.’

On ghosts:

He goes home happy, but the cardinal is waiting for him in a corner. He is plump as a cushion in his scarlet robes and his face wears a martial and mutinous expression. Wolsey says, you know he will take the credit for your good ideas, and you the blame for his bad ones?

But Liz keeps her silence; she neither stays nor goes. She is always with him and not with him.

On semantics:

It doesn’t, as some say, make the king head of the church. It states that he is head of the church, and always has been.

On Thomas Wyatt, poet and maybe lover of Anne, scorned:

Ye Old Mule
Ye old mule that think yourself so fair,
Leave off with craft your beauty to repair,
For it is true, without any fable,
No man setteth more by riding in your saddle.
Too much travail so do your train appair.
        Ye old mule
With false savour though you deceive th'air,
Whoso taste you shall well perceive your lair
Savoureth somewhat of a Kappurs stable.
        Ye old mule
Ye must now serve to market and to fair,
All for the burden, for panniers a pair.
For since gray hairs been powdered in your sable,
The thing ye seek for, you must yourself enable
To purchase it by payment and by prayer,
        Ye old mule.

On dreams coming true, not easy:

Seven years she schemed to be queen, and God protect us from answered prayers.

On royal extravagance:

The Field of the Cloth and Gold, a meeting near Calais, between Henry VIII and Francis I of France, featuring 18 days of celebration, in June 1520.

On diplomacy:

Officially, he and the ambassador are barely on speaking terms. Unofficially, Chapuys sends him a vat of good olive oil. He retaliates with capons. The ambassador himself arrives, followed by a retainer carrying a parmesan cheese.

On power:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms.

On the precarious nature of Cromwell’s existence at court:

Henry stirs into life. ‘Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.’ He drops his voice. ‘Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’

For my first read of Wolf Hall back in 2011, I wrote very briefly,

I loved the sense of anticipation that sat underneath the story of Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and her family’s rise to power.
The title of the book and the quiet, mousy Jane Seymour who appeared discretely throughout. We know her as Henry’s third wife and that his infatuation with her began with a visit to her family seat of Wolf Hall.
The whole time I’m reading about Anne I’m experiencing a delicious sense of future foreboding, waiting for the inevitable downfall…waiting for Henry to notice Jane.

This time around was less about the anticipation and more about the humour.

There were subtle word plays, silly hijinks and dick jokes that I hadn’t remembered from before. And the weather! I had forgotten how much time Mantel and her characters spent commenting on the cold, the rain, the fog, the gloom, and the grey skies.

I’m so glad I’ve taken to time to (re)read these books. It is a commitment, but the richness in detail, history and characterisation, and the lush, precise and personal story-telling, is a delight at every turn. The reward is on every page, in every word.

I so hope that The Mirror and the Light lives up to the brilliance of the first two.


A quote from Vitruvius, de Architectura, on the theatre, c.27BC.

And a list of players from Magnificence: an Interlude, John Skelton, c1520. I believe that Anne’s role in the play was ‘Perseverance’.

Favourite Quote: so many to chose from, but I love this one for the way it humanises a man demonised by many historians.

‘Hush,’ Liz says. ‘Listen to the house.’

At first, there is no sound. Then the timbers creak, breathe. In the chimneys, nesting birds shuffle. A breeze blows from the river, faintly shivering the tops of trees. They hear the sleeping breath of children, imagined from other rooms. ‘Come to bed,’ he says.

The king can’t say that to his wife. Or, with any good effect, to the woman they say he loves.


  • First published 2009. My edition published 2019
  • Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize
  • Winner of the 2010 Walter Scott Prize
  • Shortlisted 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction
  • Shortlisted 2009 Costa Novel Award
  • Shortlisted 2010 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Book:  Wolf Hall | Hilary Mantel
ISBN: 9780008381691
Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication Date: 6th December 2019 (first published 2009)
Format: Paperback

13 thoughts on “Wolf Hall | Hilary Mantel #Readalong

    1. One of the good things about having waited to read this trilogy, is that you will be able to get a set that matches, when your book buying ban is over 🙂


  1. Nice! There are a lot of great quotes, aren’t there? I’ve written out a bunch, too.

    On Cromwell’s evident niceness, I go back and forth: it’s clearly overdone, but then she does it so well. I do like him! I also wonder if she’s not reacting to an earlier tradition about Cromwell that made him into a complete and total villain, which was overdone, too. A portrait that was due to class resentment, and made him into a jumped-up upstart, and carried on into the historical tradition.

    I’ve ordered the most recent Cromwell biography from the library so maybe I’ll know more someday…

    Anyway, I’ve finished Wolf Hall & started (though just barely) Bringing Up The Bodies. I need to write a post. Thanks for this!


    1. Is the MacCulloch bio you have on order? It’s meant to be very good. The one by John Guy on Henry VIII is also meant to be good. Now to have the time to read them!!


    1. I hope you can read along with me in May. I’m almost finished BUTB and so glad that I have taken the time to reread them first. I’ve really loved being back in that world…and what’s the point of keeping books in a bookshelf and packing them and unpacking them every time you move, if you don’t read and reread them 🙂
      (This is me just thinking about my shelf life series https://bronasbooks.com/tag/shelf-life/)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds lovely. I’ll put it on my list for May, then. Are you giving out a reading list?

        Looking forward to it. I doubt I’ll have time to reread the two other books beforehand but I read a lot about that time period. The Tudors belong to my favourite eras.

        Other than that, I totally agree, why keep the books if we never ever read them again. I sorted out a lot during our last move but there are still soooo many.

        Liked by 1 person

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