The Wonders of Wolf Hall
I recently finished reading Hilary Mantel's brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light), which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who rises from obscurity to become King Henry VIII's most trusted advisor. If you don't want spoilers, don't read on...though as this is historical fiction, plot twists are not the point. The series is gripping, even if you kind of know what's coming.
The novels are remarkable--among the best I've ever read. (At nearly 900 pages, the third volume is perhaps a tad long, but, by my lights, it's still superb.) I hesitated before blogging about them here because the trilogy speaks for itself and on its face holds little of immediate relevance to 21st century lawyers. Moreover, though Mantel clearly did extensive historical research, the books are fiction. She has invented ruminations, dialogue, and even some characters. Mantel, who died in 2022, weaves a rich and convincing tapestry of Tudor England, but one should not mistake her work for history.
Perhaps more importantly, historians warn of the dangers of presentism, of reading history through contemporary eyes. Our concerns differ from past generations'. Though it is difficult not to see the past through the lens of the present, that lens necessarily distorts. (This is one of many reasons we should view originalism skeptically. For much more on the pitfalls of originalism, see this and many other posts from my co-blogger, Eric Segall.) The 1530s were nearly half a millennium ago. Their world and ours are more different than similar.
And yet part of Mantel's genius is that her characters and their dilemmas are so vivid, even though their society is mostly foreign. I can't be the only contemporary American to observe that Mantel's Henry VIII bears some striking resemblances to former President Trump. (I haven't seen it, but a 2020 documentary also draws comparisons between the two.) Both are physically imposing, charismatic men with devoted followers. Both are also capricious, self-serving, and vicious, quick to discard friends who are no longer useful. Like Trump, Henry is loyal to you until he is not; falls from grace can be abrupt and, in Henry's case, fatal.
These similarities are probably not entirely coincidental--and not because Mantel intended them. (The first two volumes of the trilogy were published before Trump's presidency.) Pundits have long remarked that Trump has styled himself as a would-be strong man who admires the likes of Vladimir Putin. His own vision of power leans more monarchical than democratic. Though he has never indicated much interest in history, Trump presumably would admire Henry's flamboyant grandeur, physical bulk, and (near) absolute power.
Lest Trump flatter himself too much, it's worth pointing out differences, too. In one scene, Henry more than holds his own in an impassioned theological debate with an accused heretic. By contrast, Trump lacks the inclination or capacity to engage seriously with complicated ideas. Whereas Henry debates those who disagree with him, Trump instead only belittles and demeans them.
Unlike Trump, the king also believes in chivalry, or at least the appearance of it. Henry married six times and had several mistresses, but he detests bawdy talk. Though the king badly mistreats some of the women in his life, going so far as to behead two of his wives, he likely would have found Trump's lewd banter repellent.
Also unlike Trump, Henry went through his wives with the singular goal of siring a male heir. In 21st century America, this may seem like sexist vanity, but in Tudor England, it was for the peace of the realm. Some of Henry's ancestors had fought in the multi-decade War of the Roses for control of the English throne. Henry's own father, Henry Tudor, had become King Henry VII thanks to his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This was recent history, and it preoccupied not only Henry but many members of his court. If Henry VIII did not himself produce a male heir, the country could easily descend into war again between rival claimants to the throne. Henry's disloyalty to his wives served, in his eyes, a noble and patriotic purpose.
The star of Mantel's show is not the king but Thomas Cromwell, and he resonates in our times even more. Son of a drunken, abusive blacksmith, Cromwell is a commoner who, against all odds, has risen to the pinnacle of English government and society. He served as advisor first to the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and then to the king himself. Cromwell locks horns repeatedly with nobility who resent that the king would confide in a man with such "vile blood." With a few exceptions, Cromwell resents their stupidity. Tudor England was emphatically not a meritocracy, but Cromwell rose to wealth and power anyway through perseverance, intellect, adaptability, and guile. Cromwell is a modern man in a (mostly) medieval society.
Yet while Mantel's Cromwell is captivating, he is not altogether laudable. For much of the series, he is essentially Henry's fixer (though infinitely more interesting than Michael Cohen). Cromwell not only handles Henry's problems but often realizes what Henry needs before the king himself does. He manages delicate foreign relations with France and the Holy Roman Empire. He helps Henry break from Rome and assume command of religious matters at home. He brings down countless corrupt monasteries, seizing their assets to enrich the crown (and himself). In so doing, he turns Henry from a poor king into a wealthy one who can more comfortably hold his own alongside Europe's other monarchs. Cromwell furthermore helps Henry get in and out of multiple marriages. Perhaps most wickedly, he also eliminates the crown's supposed internal enemies, some of whom, we gather (as in real life, little is ever certain), may be Cromwell's foes more than England's.
The 1530s in England was a period of profound transformation. Religion, politics, economics, and foreign relations are intertwined and ever shifting, and Cromwell is usually in the thick of things. Because Mantel is a novelist, not a historian, she can speculate more freely and creatively about the intersection of the personal and professional, the spiritual and the worldly--and how they intersect to reshape a nation's destiny.
Historians sometimes describe Cromwell as power hungry. Mantel's Cromwell is, too; she clearly is interested in how men accumulate power and use it. There is, however, more to Cromwell than just that. Mantel is a stunning writer, but perhaps her greatest gift is her portrait of complexity, her Dostoevskian ability to convey the swirling and conflicting thoughts and motives that drive a person. People contain multitudes, both good and evil. Certainly Mantel's Cromwell does. The same Cromwell who takes in destitute children and raises them in his home also orchestrates the executions of men who once slighted him. The same Cromwell who arranges Anne Boleyn's beheading is the rare man who takes the women around him seriously, both at home and at court.
His motives are usually mixed. He brings down monasteries not only to enrich the king and himself but also to free common folk from the oppression of provincial monks who for generations have swindled the locals out of what little they have. He envisions using monastic money to help destitute farmers and desires the arrival of an English Bible that can bring God's word directly to the people and cut out the corrupt, papal middlemen. Cromwell, it turns out, is a social and religious reformer, along with everything else, ferocious but also far-sighted.
Likewise, Mantel's Sir Thomas More is a man of contrasts: a doting father who teachers his daughter Greek, a sadist who relishes the burning of heretics, a brilliant theologian with few intellectual peers, a courageous believer willing to die for his God, and a naive scholar unable to see the world for what it really is. More's cerebral myopia exasperates and fascinates Cromwell, who, years after More's execution, continues an imagined dialogue with his old intellectual rival. At least one historian notes that Mantel's More, like her Anne Boleyn, departs substantially from the real person, but complete historical accuracy is not Mantel's objective.
Mantel's depiction of Tudor England is full of details that bring to life that distant world, but it is her characters, above all Cromwell, who stick with you, and that is because they are full of internal tensions and contradictions. Our 21st century media soundbites depict political winners and losers, good guys and bad ones (though who is good and who is bad depends on where you get your news). Wolf Hall's Thomas Cromwell is full of moral ambiguity.
Unsurprisingly, the series has few direct lessons for contemporary American politics or global democracy in peril. After all, it depicts a monarchical society. Cromwell can bend Parliament, more or less, to suit Henry's will--and his own. When the king agrees to bring someone down, Cromwell goes to Parliament for a Bill of Attainder. He is an able (and perhaps unscrupulous) lawyer, so this is all pretty easy. There are some legal procedures he must observe, but they are a far cry from what we today consider due process, let alone justice and fairness. This shouldn't be surprising; the English Civil War, Commonwealth, Glorious Revolution, and Bill of Rights were all more than a century away. (Oliver Cromwell, who led the Civil War against Charles I in the 1640s
and then served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, was Thomas's great-great-grand-nephew.) The seeds of the American constitutional system, evident by mid-17th century England, aren't much there yet in the 1530s. Tudor England was fast changing, in substantial part thanks to Cromwell, but it wasn't a modern country.
If there are lessons for us today, they may be less in the history and more in Mantel's art. Like other great novelists, she shines her light on human complexity. Mantel's Cromwell is far more complicated and interesting than today's political figures, at least as the media depict them. Whereas Mantel's portrait of Cromwell is full of subtleties and paradoxes, contemporary media press out cartoonish caricatures of today's political leaders. This is to be expected. Of course, a few paragraphs online can't accomplish what nearly 2,000 pages can. It's not just the different genres, though. Part of the problem is that we like to think of our public figures in two-dimensional form.
No doubt, some of our politicians deserve no better, but surely that can't be true of all of them. The same is true of ordinary people. Convenient as it may be politically to demonize the other side, that strategy often doesn't serve the greater good and it's almost never accurate. There are doubtlessly villains in our world, Trump and Putin among them, but that does not mean all their supporters are. To paraphrase Justice Scalia, good people can have very bad ideas. Many Democrats and Republicans today, though, see their fellow Americans on the other side not as mistaken so much as traitorous. In some cases, perhaps they are, but that does not mean we should not try to let them explain the world through their eyes, however uncomfortable that might make us. (Preeta Bansal gets at a related idea when she talks about the inner work of democracy.)
The problems with American democracy are multi-faceted and complicated, but among them are the simple fact that as a society we've largely lost the ability to see the humanity in people we disagree with. There are many things we must try to regain a shared national compassion and empathy, and I am not naive enough to suggest that reading great literature is a real solution to democratic erosion. (Nor am I naive enough to think that most Americans have the appetite for reading anything much longer than a tweet.) But literature does force us to inhabit other people's minds for a time, to humanize lives and experiences that are alien to our everyday existence. (This is one of a million reasons why recent book bans are so distressing.) Literature might also make us more open to engaging with our fellow human beings' stories and concerns.
The Mirror and the Light, the series' final volume, opens with an epigraph from François Villon, a 15th century French poet:
Villon reminds us not to sneer at people who inhabited supposedly less enlightened ages. His words, though, might also remind us not to sneer at each other, however tempting that might be. If we can see the world through the eyes of a 15th century blacksmith's son, perhaps we can learn to empathize with each other, too.