The British King Henry VIII’s fleeting love for women made him marry six times. He had a bevy of concubines in addition. Managing such a lot of women is a herculean task even for a crafty king, especially when his powers were circumscribed by his religion which did not endorse divorce, let alone polygamy. How did Henry manage to marry women one after the other? He usurped power from the Church.
Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, tells the story of those turbulent days in the history of England. The novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. This is not a review of the book; a book that has been read by many does not need a review. This is a brief journey through the politics of those days.
Henry was a shrewd politician. But Thomas Cromwell towers above him in the novel. Cromwell is the protagonist. It is Cromwell who alters the history of England as well as that of the Catholic Church. Even Henry wonders what he would have done without Cromwell.
However, Cromwell was not a supporter of Henry initially. Cardinal Wolsey was Cromwell’s patron and Wolsey would not allow Henry to divorce his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Catholic Church did (does) not endorse divorce without substantially valid reasons, even if it is the king who demands it. The British Empire was subject to the spiritual powers of the Pope. When power is endowed by God himself, who but the Pope would have the ultimate powers on the earth?
Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, is sent to his death by Henry. The cardinal commits suicide in order to avoid execution for treason. Any act that contravenes the King’s desire is an act of treason. Cromwell’s craftiness does not succeed in saving the cardinal. But soon Cromwell becomes the king’s counsellor.
As ruthless as he is intelligent, Cromwell had a miserable childhood. Born as the son of a brutal blacksmith (in the imagination of the novelist), Cromwell went through excruciating experiences before emerging as a learned lawyer who not only could recite the whole New Testament from memory but also could speak many languages.
His patron, the cardinal’s death is not the only tragedy that strikes Cromwell. Soon he loses his wife and children to plague. Emerging from the ashes of grief like a phoenix, Cromwell finds his way into Henry’s palace and its political schemes. Cromwell knows that power is the secret of success in a world of intrigues and schemes. If you happen to be on the wrong side of the power-wielder, you should learn to take it gently (as he advises Mary Boleyn when she was shunted out of the palace after Henry married her sister) and learn to turn the tide in your favour in the course of time.
Cromwell does not indulge in deception, however. He tells people how they can save themselves. But if they don’t want to save themselves, he can do little to save them. He is called a butcher and described as a murderer by people. His face has such an appearance, a fact which he confirms from his own son. But he is not as wicked as most others of his stature. His goals are clear and nothing can prevent him from achieving them – this aspect gives him the murderous demeanour.
He knows that the Roman Catholic Church is the biggest stumbling block for Henry. Why should England accept this foreign rule? He tells Henry to call the Pope “the Bishop of Rome.” That is, the Pope has no legitimate power over England. The Pope’s is the power of the Church, thinks Henry, and the Church is universal. Cromwell has no respect for the Church. He thinks that the monks are a heap of “waste and corruption,” “a parade of the seven deadly sins,” epitome of “hypocrisy, fraud, idleness”… They won’t let the common man and woman acquire any knowledge because it is easy to keep the ignorant under the yoke of rules and regulations.
Having studied the 42 propositions that Marsiglio of Padua put forward in 1324, Cromwell tells Henry that “when Christ came into this world he came not as a ruler or a judge, but as a subject; subject to the state as he found it. He did not seek to rule, nor pass on to his disciples a mission to rule. He did not give power to one of his followers more than another… Christ did not make Popes. He did not give his followers the power to make laws or levy taxes, both of which churchmen have claimed as their right.”
Cromwell proves to Henry that most of the religion as practised by the monks is fraud. For example, he subjects Elizabeth Barton, a prophetess, to questioning and shows that she was a tool in the hands of certain priests like Father Bocking who used the prophecies for gaining political power and material wealth.
Cromwell succeeds in convincing Henry to tell Rome to go to hell. Thus the Church of England is born. The Act of Supremacy is ratified in the Parliament in 1536, three years after Henry married Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn too would die soon, beheaded on charges of adultery. But the novel ends with the Act of Supremacy. The novel is about victors.
Even Cromwell would meet a tragic end in the history which the novel does not pursue. Cromwell would be executed for treason. (Anyone who questions the king is a traitor.)
Wolf Hall ends with Anne Boleyn and Cromwell smiling to themselves gleefully. Both are characters who know themselves, their limits as well as their powers. Anne, for example, know that she was after all just a woman, “the means by which sin enters the world… the devil’s gateway.” That she opens the gateway to many men, both before and after her marriage to the King, is a different matter. She is as good a schemer as Cromwell and Henry. The novel is about their schemes as well as those of the clergy. But the clergy lose out in the end. In the Wolf Hall, man is wolf to man. It’s no different in any political history: that seems to be the novelist’s suggestion in the end.