I think what really attracted me to this book is that it’s based on a real historical mystery, not something completely made up and inserted into the historical context. The Prebendaries Plot was real, and Holbein did die at the time the story is set. But combining the two is really clever, especially given that we don’t know exactly how Holbein died.
It’s a gripping mystery with so many different strands that all come together. There are plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings to contend with which keep you gripped to the end, until the mystery is resolved. The cover says that you’ll love this series if you love the Shardlake books, but I do think the Shardlake books are actually slightly better because Shardlake is a more interesting character I’ve found. But that doesn’t deduct from the genius of this mystery.
The 4 stars rather than 5 was because the writing in parts felt clunky and didn’t flow as well as it could have, but the engaging mystery rescued it. Perhaps it felt clunky because there was a lot of, obviously well-researched, information about the religious discord in England at this time and how it was affecting people, but it didn’t really add to the story. I didn’t feel that the amount of information given was entirely necessary to the story.
What was interesting to me was the potential insight into Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, as a person. I haven’t really read much about him as a person, though he obviously comes up as part of my research into Tudor England, so it was intriguing to think of him as a person thrust into one of the highest positions in England but not very good at the political machinations and having to rely on others to assist him.
It’s good that, at the end of the book, there is an explanation from the author of what is actually history and what is fiction, it helps to keep it clear for those looking to research further. I wish more authors would do this when writing fiction as otherwise lines become blurred.
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?
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.
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. Continue reading “Discussion Questions – ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel”