WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR FICTION
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The first novel in Hilary Mantel’s magnificent trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, in a gorgeous new edition to celebrate the trilogy’s completion with the #1 New York Times-bestselling The Mirror & the Light
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous.
Cromwell rises to heights no one could have imagined. The Boleyns, the Howards, the old families and the new, cannot fathom why the king so trusts and relies on a man of no title and an obscured past, even after Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey falls from favor. Cromwell manages to deliver the king’s wishes, but what will be the price of his triumph? In Wolf Hall, Mantel inhabits the fascinating mind of a man little understood and widely mythologized, bringing his influence on the making of Britain into new, dazzling light.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about Wolf Hall are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Wolf Hall.
About the Book
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, of the execution of Thomas More and the English Reformation, all from a new vantage point—through the eyes of the man traditionally considered its villain. For centuries Thomas Cromwell has been widely regarded as the unprincipled and power-hungry opportunist whose influence on Henry VIII contributed to the worst excesses of Tudor England. But Mantel gives Cromwell a chance to tell his side of the story, from his humble beginnings at the hands of a drunk and abusive father, to his unprecedented rise, becoming the closest advisor to Henry VIII.
As Reformation spreads on the Continent, Henry suddenly finds himself at odds with the Catholic Church he had once so vigorously defended. Henry is without a male heir, and, the Tudor line imperiled, has pressed his advisor Cardinal Wolsey to lobby the Pope for an annulment of his twenty-year marriage. Wolsey's failure and subsequent downfall suddenly places Cromwell in a unique position of influence with the king. As Cromwell rises in Henry's esteem, he begins to turn Henry away from the idea of annulment in favor of a more radical solution—a complete break with Rome. But accomplishing such a task is a daunting political feat, and while Henry and Anne Boleyn both wait impatiently to bring about a legal union, Cromwell must plot against his enemies and prepare the country for a fundamental transformation in religious identity.
1. What is the significance of Mantel's "occult" history of Britain? How might these legendary traditions have influenced Henry in choosing to marry Anne Boleyn? What role does legend play in the perpetuation of a monarchy?
2. Why was Cromwell so attached to Cardinal Wolsey? Was Wolsey more of a mentor or a father-figure for Cromwell? What do love and loyalty mean for Cromwell?
3. Why is it meant as an insult when Norfolk calls Cromwell a "person?" What is it about Cromwell that frustrates members of the nobility so much? Why were Wolsey and Henry able to appreciate Cromwell's talents when everyone else merely saw him as an impudent schemer?
4. What is it that makes Cromwell resolve to be gentle and mild with his children? What gave him the will and the confidence to become a different man than his father?
5. What kind of a character is Thomas More in this novel? Does he come off as sympathetic in any way? Why does More choose to die rather than accept breaking away from the Catholic Church? Would Cromwell be willing to die for his beliefs?
6. What is the significance to Cromwell of seeing the woman burned at the stake as a child? How could an event such as this have influenced Cromwell in his later attitudes towards Reformation? Does Cromwell have any specific religious convictions? Or is he more driven by convictions of common decency and personal loyalty?
7. What kind of a king is Henry VIII in this novel? What motivates him? Are his preoccupations solely self-interested, or does he have the good of the country in mind as well? What is it that makes him so susceptible to Anne Boleyn's seductions?
8. In conjuring Cromwell on the page, what does Mantel create, and what does she re-create from this historical record? Along those lines, how does historical fiction influence the way we look at history?
9. What is it that makes Cromwell so driven? Does his ambition stem from a desire to do good, or is it just a survival instinct based on his past? How is Cromwell both personally ambitious and yet generous and unselfish?
10. Is Cromwell attempting to realize any particular political vision for the country, or is he just reacting to the situation at hand? Does he strive to bring about a more egalitarian society, or is it more a matter of being unconsciously influenced by his experiences as a commoner?
11. What is the significance of Guido Camillo's "memory machine?" Why is Cromwell interested in it? Does he see it as some sort of potential weapon, or is he driven by a desire for knowledge?
12. Is there something tragic about the fate of Elizabeth Barton the prophetess? Was she merely deceived by the monks, or was there something cynical about her? Did it seem that she ever believed in her visions? If she had not been exploited for political gain, might she have made a genuine contribution to spiritual life at the time? Or was she simply a fraud?
13. What is the source of Cromwell's antipathy for More? What is it about More that outrages him? Is there something personal in it for Cromwell, or does More simply represent a particular type of villainy to him?
14. Later in the novel we see Cromwell come to the realization that his home now is either where there's business to be done, or with the king. How is this a personal transformation for him, considering what life was like when his wife and daughters were alive? In the lively Austin Friars, full of extended family and wards and guests, Cromwell seemed the consummate family man. Why did he change? Is there something sad about this change in him?
15. Did Cromwell truly want to spare More from being executed? Did he do everything he could to save him? What made More so inflexible? Was it related to his desire to always live life in the public eye?
16. As the novel ends and Cromwell is at the height of his power, is there anything in his actions that foreshadow his later downfall? Has he become too much like Wolsey? Would the mercurial Henry VIII have been likely sooner or later to turn on Cromwell anyway?
17. Is there any indication in the portrayal of Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall of the role she would later play? What might motivate Seymour to foster high ambitions? How might Seymour be similar to Cromwell?