Discussion Questions – ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel


  1. What does Holbein’s portrait capture about Thomas Cromwell’s character that even Cromwell, himself, recognises? What kind of man is Cromwell? In the rapacious world of Wolf Hall, do you find him a sympathetic character, or not?
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

I think that Cromwell becomes more ambitious when he gets a taste of power. I think he likes to thwart those in power with his knowledge, like when Wolsey is demanded to give up the great seal. I think that Cromwell doesn’t come across as more sympathetic in ‘Wolf Hall’ than in other books featuring him, as we see the deaths of his wife and daughters, and the fall of his mentor in his own eyes, rather than the eyes of Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. I think he is a very caring person with a ruthless streak in his religious beliefs. I think Holbein’s portrait captures Cromwell’s essence in not flaunting his rising position, but still showing his power with the books and papers around him. It’s very clever that it’s not explicit, but it still shows the reined-in power.

  1. What effect did Cromwell’s upbringing have on his character and his later views about the privileged society that permeates the court? How does he feel about the aristocracy and its insistence on ancient rights?

I think that Cromwell’s relationship with his father affects a lot of his thoughts and actions now he is an adult. He seems to be very fixed on not ending up like his father, and having a better relationship with his children than his father had with him. He wasn’t brought up to a privileged way of life, so he can see more clearly than those at court the importance of promoting people for their abilities rather than their wealth and titles. He believes that, in the future, self-made men will have an important role in running the country, more so than the old nobility who represent the medieval period that has now been left behind – men like him represent the future.

  1. What does Cromwell mean when he tells his son that “it’s all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow”?

Cromwell suggests that perhaps thinking in the shorter term is a better way to survive, and then you can’t be disappointed when you’re not where you imagined yourself to be in six months or a year. You might have a plan for six months’ time, but the work to get there starts tomorrow, so you need to plan in the short-term how to reach your longer-term goals. Some people think that the short-term doesn’t matter, it’s only what you achieve in the end that does, but tomorrow can affect the whole future – you don’t know what will happen, but it could be a pivotal turning point in your life, especially if you make it so.

  1. Comment on Cromwell’s observation regarding an earl that “The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he never imagined.” What does Cromwell mean…and in what sense is his statement a very modern view of the world?
Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' (2009).
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (2009).

Antwerp, Florence and the like are the cultural and trade centres of the world. The Tudor period is when trade really begins to take off – the discovery of the new world and new spices and flavours. It also sees the introduction of the printing press, and the wider circulation of all kinds of books. These are things which will change the world and change the views that people share of the world we live in. It is quite a modern view, as today the monarchy is more symbolic rather than wielding true power, and it is those who print books, and sell goods, and work on the building sites that have the real power, as we can choose our own government, and help shape the laws of our country. I think this is a view of the world that Cromwell would have approved of – power, not in the hands of the few elite, but in the hands of the general population.

  1. Why does Cromwell dislike the Catholic clergy? What are his motives for helping Henry marry Anne Boleyn and sever ties to the Pope? What larger goals does he hope to achieve in helping? Are they selfless…or selfish?

Cromwell dislikes the Catholic clergy because they are corrupt at this time – they take advantage of the poor in encouraging them to buy a plot for their souls in heaven, and all the taxes they have to pay to the church. He also frowns on the running of pilgrimages and the iconoclasm of relics and the like, especially when it is then proven that most of them are fakes. I think that Cromwell will use whatever means necessary to turn England to what he sees as the true faith, and reform the English church. He sees Anne Boleyn as a useful tool to achieve this, as she shares his beliefs. I think he also hopes to advance himself in power after the fall of his patron, Cardinal Wolsey. I think his actions are selfish because of his intention to advance himself, but also selfless because he believes he is saving the English people from a corrupt church.

  1. If you are familiar with Thomas More, especially through A Man for All Seasons, were you surprised by this book’s treatment of him?

I haven’t seen ‘A Man for All Seasons’ but I have read about it. It presents a very positive image of More, possibly influenced by his later canonisation. However, I think that, living within the English court, you can’t have been as saint-like as More seems to be in popular literature – there must have been more to him, so I wasn’t really that surprised by Mantel’s view of him. The story is seen through Cromwell’s eyes, and More and Cromwell hold opposite religious views, so I think it was necessary telling the story from this point of view to show More as less than saintly. I think that it probably surprised a few people, especially if they haven’t really thought about the period in as much depth as historians and students. I, myself, wasn’t really that surprised by the different interpretation.

  1. How does Cromwell perceive Anne Boleyn? How does she come across in this book? Consider his observation when she is in the presence of the king’s friends: “Anne is brittle in their company and as ruthless with their compliments as a house-wife snapping the necks of larks for the table.” Also talk about the danger he sees for Anne as he thinks, “Any little girl can hold the key to the future”.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

I think Cromwell sees Anne Boleyn as a means to an end – she is useful in helping him to distance Henry VIII from his Catholic views, and she promotes the break with Rome, but when she has outlasted her usefulness, Cromwell seems to have no compunction in turning against her. She comes across as very Frenchified, more so than in other interpretations I’ve read, and quite shrewish and brittle – she seems to be unsure of herself at times and balanced on a knife edge. Anne seems to be aware of her own charms, but is also careful to distance herself from those she believes to be below her – she is the future Queen of England, which is perhaps why she is brittle with the king’s courtiers. Also, she possibly fears that the king’s close friends are trying to turn him against her and the divorce, and encourage his return to Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell recognises what Anne put into her rise, and how tenuous her position is – she is completely dependent on the love of the king, who can be quite fickle. Anne’s rise will affect the shape of the remainder of the Tudor dynasty, and her daughter would become the greatest of English monarchs.

  1. Do you know the fate of Cromwell, some years after the book’s ending? If you don’t know, can you surmise? If you do, how does it colour your reading of Wolf Hall?

I do know what happens to Cromwell in the end. It colours how I read Wolf Hall because, seeing it through Cromwell’s eyes, it is difficult to see how he could be accused of treason. Nevertheless, his relationship with the king isn’t portrayed as being particularly close, so perhaps Henry never really feels remorse for his end. It’s interesting trying to find the points that Cromwell is most vulnerable, so makes his fall possible. I’ve also read ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and I’m looking forward to ‘The Mirror and the Light’ to see just how Cromwell’s end is handled.

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