The concert musical Six recasts the women who married Henry VIII as pop divas, each queen getting at least one number telling her side of the story. It deliberately aims to decenter Henry, asserting that each of these women meant more than her marital status to a king. Reformulating the story matters because it pushes against dominant narratives about what matters and whose story gets told. On the other hand, decentering the king proves challenging when the world is largely run by, and history is largely written in service to, powerful men.
Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy likewise attempts to decenter Henry, focusing instead on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell rose from humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s son to being Henry VIII’s most trusted counselor. Henry even made him a Duke, shortly before succumbing to the whispers of Cromwell’s rivals and executing him for treason. Cromwell’s alleged crimes included heresy, sorcery, and trying to unseat the king. His real crimes were being competent and ambitious above his “station,” and a forward-thinker ahead of his time in terms of class and religion (Cromwell not-so-secretly favored Lutheranism over Catholicism). Cromwell failed to anticipate perfectly the whims and moods of an imperfect king, and thus followed in the footsteps of similarly-fallen counselors, including Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Cromwell’s patron) and Sir Thomas More, as well as Henry’s first two queens. In a nasty cherry on the end of Cromwell’s life, his execution, famously, may have been botched by a drunken executioner who took at least a couple of whacks to finish the task.
These facts loom over the entire of Mantel’s trilogy but most notably in the final volume, The Mirror and the Light (2020). As a reader, I found it impossible to not feel an anticipatory dread as Cromwell rises and rises and rises, knowing of course of his impending fall. Historical fiction, particularly if about very famous people and events, has no “spoilers.” The details of plot, such as we have structured it, are already known. Instead, it contains the pleasure, responsibility, and creativity to play with people’s personalities, the unfolding of events, and how we understand these people and happenings—in context of their own time and in ours.
Mantel morphs Thomas Cromwell, a man never accused of being warm, into a sympathetic, complex human character. But as the series concludes, Cromwell also appears as an ambiguous character, his motivations open to interpretation. Cromwell himself, at the end, cannot be certain how he came to this point:
“Sometimes his mind drifts away, as it must: far from this room, beyond the city walls, across the fields and into the forest. The cover is dense, as in the years before trees were cut down for houses and ships, and all the creatures now extinct are alive again, for good or ill: the beaver in the stream, the wolf gaining on you with his long stride. When a man does not know which path to take he scatters crumbs from the loaf he carries in his hand, but the birds swoop behind him and eat them. He takes off his shirt and tears it into strips, and ties a strip to a brand at each fork in the road, but the ogres who live deep in the wood tread after him and steal the linen to bind their woulds: for ogres are always fighting. He labours on, and talking trees snigger about him, hiding their expressions of contempt behind their leaves” (728).
We are left to weigh what made Cromwell tick. Was it ambition? Religious belief? Loyalty to king and country? Proto-Humanist philosophy? Mantel folds in all the possibilities like laminated dough, all the layers appear but it’s impossible to parse one from the next.
Cromwell also appears as a man caught within currents of history, constrained by systems over which he has only limited control and agency. The mystery of Cromwell becomes our own. As the above passage indicates, we make choices that seem right and reasonable at the time but looking back for the path that led from there to here turns out to be trickier than it seems, both in terms of our motivations and the forces that pushed us in this direction or that.
The task of decentering the king also turns out to be challenging. I read these books knowing and anticipating Cromwell’s story in context, and that context looms large. Like Anne Boleyn or Anna of Cleves, we only know about Thomas Cromwell because of his relationship to Henry VIII. The story feels like Henry’s and while we enter that story in media res with Cromwell, the end of Cromwell does not feel like the end of the story as we already know the ghosts waiting in the queue—Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, but also the reign’s of Edward, Mary, Elizabeth …
Which does not discredit the series. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Thomas Cromwell. I enjoyed being with a unique mind, unlike anyone I’d seen in literature, and in a vibrant, alien-yet-familiar world. Cromwell merited this calling into being.
Last, if science fiction plays with possibilities of what we could do or be, historical fiction holds up a mirror, suggesting how we got to be where we are, sometimes also revealing who we are. Mantel published Wolf Hall in 2009, years before the Trump presidency even felt like a possibility. Yet like everything in the “Trump era” it’s hard not to read about the actions of a capricious, narcissistic, too powerful man-child and not map them onto the current moment. In that mindset, Cromwell feels like Renaissance England’s John Kelly, one of a rotating cast of advisors, orbiting the same orange sun. Lucky for the current power brokers, we’ve stopped executing those who get on the leader’s bad side.