Lauren Mackay has created a very appealing companion book, to have to hand, whilst reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. I love beautifully produced and packaged books – this is definitely one. Now that I have reread and read all three Wolf Hall books, I suspect I will not need to read them again and will pass them on to friends. But the Wolf Hall Companion is a keeper.
The Wolf Hall Companion is perfect for those who want to read The Mirror and the Light but do not want to reread the first two. It revisits key moments from the first two books, to bring you up to speed, if it’s a while since you read them. But it has also been wonderful to have it by my side as I’ve reread the first two books, in preparation for reading The Mirror and the Light.
Mackay fills in background details about most of the main players in the books. She discusses any changes, omissions and controversies in Mantel’s version compared to the historical record as we currently know it. In particular, as you would expect, she spends a fait bit of time on Cromwell himself, going over what various historians have recorded about him, how certain interpretations became ‘common knowledge’ or accepted as fact, to arrive, finally at Mantel’s blend of fact and fiction where ‘people, personalities, and motivations have been imagined and embellished for dramatic effect, interwoven with documentary evidence. History has provided us with the how and what, but Mantel has made her own suggestions as to why.’
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Life (2018) is referenced fairly often as the most recent account of his life (and has been added to my TBR wishlist – wishlist only at this point. It is so comprehensive, I will have to wait until my retirement if I ever hope to do it justice).
I learnt many new titbits about life in Tudor times. For instance, Henry had over 60 estates. He regularly moved between them, taking his entire court with him. Wherever he was became the seat of government, the ‘focal point of power, patronage and pleasure‘. The constant rotation between estates had the benefit of allowing each palace to be cleaned thoroughly as well as giving the game keepers time to restock the royal parks. The wealthy, powerful families had their own apartments within each palace.
There was a job called the Groom of the Stool. A position held by a gentleman (or two) whose job it was to assist the king with his ablutions, ‘even wiping the royal bottom‘. This gentleman also had the pleasure of sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the king’s bed.
I knew that public execution was a common enough ending for people who found themselves out of royal favour, but the ending for poor, prophesising Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, in 1534 seemed particularly harsh. She was dragged behind a horse for 5 miles, then hanged at Tyburn gallows in front of a large crowd. They then decapitated her and boiled her head, before setting it on a spike on London Bridge!
Petrarch is often credited with the beginning of the Renaissance Humanist movement, an ‘ethical system that advanced the concept of the dignity, freedom and the value of human beings; a shift of emphasis from religious to secular expression.’ Obviously, during Henry’s reign, these ideas were only just becoming known when we consider what happened to the Holy Maid of Kent as well as a number of Henry’s wives and close companions.
For anyone confused by all the names and titles that the various characters go by, Mackay provides mini bio’s on all of the key players and how they came to be a part of the king’s entourage.
The Mirror and the Light is only dealt with in the final two chapters. Mackay tells us that after Cromwell’s execution, Henry was known to rage against his councillors, ‘saying that, upon light pretexts, by false accusations, they made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had.’ Highlighting once more, how Henry was never responsible for his own actions; others were always to blame. Cold comfort for Cromwell and his family. And eerily familiar in modern politics.
Besides a comprehensive index at the back, Mackay includes a useful Further Reading section which includes Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (thank you Marianne as well) and Tracy Borman’s Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. Along with the Diarmaid MacCulloch mentioned above, that will probably do me for Tudor England this lifetime (unless you can convince me otherwise with another favourite must read).
It turns out that Lauren Mackay is also an Australian. She is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with a Master of History from the University of New England and a PhD from the University of Newcastle. She now lives in the UK.
Joanna Lisowiec digital wood engraving illustrations were a real treat throughout the entire book. From the lovely cover (which is a much warmer, richer red in real life than in my image), to the new chapter borders, portraits of individuals, family trees and crests.
Highly recommended for fans of the trilogy and lovers of literary companions.
Book: Wolf Hall Companion Author: Lauren Mackay ISBN: 9781911358619 Publisher: Batsford (Pavilion Books) Publication Date: 2nd September 2020 Format: Hardback