“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream”; and so begins Hilary Mantel’s fascinating dramatisation of the life of Tudor diplomat Thomas Cromwell, ruthlessly efficient social climber and one of Henry VIII’s most powerful courtiers.
Set amidst the turbulent backdrop of Henry VIII’s Tudor England, the novel begins with Cromwell’s brutal childhood: abused, beaten and friendless, he leads a hard life in the gutters of Putney, London. His notoriously violent father Walter terrorises him both physically and mentally, forming Cromwell’s hardened character that will later menace the most influential nobles in England.
Kicked (quite literally) from his father’s house, he travels to the Continent, becoming a soldier and fighting for the French in some of the most barbaric conquests of the period. Yet his fiercely intelligent mind quickly picks up on the various languages – French, Flemish, Latin – that he hears during his European excursions, catalysing his social ascension when he eventually returns to London. He becomes a prolific man of the law, soon dealing not just with legal, but complex financial matters, attracting the attention of Cardinal Wolsey: one of the most powerful men in England.
Yet Wolsey’s time in power is nearly up: the King needs a male heir, and wants a divorce from his ageing wife Katherine of Aragon. Wolsey has failed to secure it. As England is still a Catholic country, Henry must obtain the approval of the Pope for his divorce, something he is unprepared to award given the volatile European political scene and the powerful regal forces that influence him in Rome. Wolsey’s ensuing spectacular downfall leaves Thomas Cromwell with a conundrum: can he forsake his lifelong loyalty to Wolsey for the sake of his political career?
And amidst the plague-ridden streets of London, Cromwell’s private life is also in crisis. Married with a son – Gregory – and two daughters – Alice and Grace – he struggles to protect his family from the constant threats of life in the 16th century whilst battling against the snobbish nobles of the King’s council. A blacksmith’s son, they are antagonistic to the kind of ‘new man’ that Cromwell represents in the changing social climate of Tudor England: one with little noble blood, but diplomatic skills unmatched in all of England’s grand estates.
Vast, masterful and impressive in scale and detail, Mantel’s novel is an intriguing window into the entangled web of Tudor politics. Faced simultaneously with foreign threats, domestic political scandal and the whims of a King obsessed with his new love Anne Boleyn, she neatly captures the complexities and difficulties of a man trying to advance in the deadly social order. England is in religious turmoil, heretics being burned daily for their radical new doctrines, and Cromwell must navigate these obstacles to cement his rise to invincibility.
I would certainly recommend this novel for anyone interested in Tudor history; for me it is revision of a period I like for its intriguing scandal, yet not for its complexity in exams! However, its massive scope and length and its – although impressive – precise detail, means that it is often a little boring; it certainly requires a level of commitment, but is well worth the time if you can manage it!
Ultimately it is a brilliantly imagined – yet still highly factual – fictional account of one of the most fascinating politicians in British history, weaving together the intrigues of the Tudor court in a way that far surpasses any purely historical tale. Cromwell’s illustrious rise to power and dazzling political career continues to fascinate historians today (the novel being made into an award-winning series starring Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis) and certainly loses no brilliance in Mantel’s inventive dramatisation.