Thursday, June 26, 2014


Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.”

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Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein. Cromwell was a great supporter of Holbein and personal gave him many commissions for paintings, but also recommended him to the powerful people he knew.

Thomas Cromwell was first and foremost a thinker. The myth that we only use about 10% of our brains has been debunked in recent years, but I do think we can accurately say that for some of us our brain works more efficiently. I think if we were to sit in a very quiet room with Thomas Cromwell we might actually be able to hear the humming of his mind like the circuitry of a super computer. Henry the Eighth

I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,
'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an 'Enery
She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam
I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery
'Enery the Eighth, I am!

Sorry I can’t ever seem to say or write his name without that song popping into my head. Let’s try this again.

Henry the Eighth was not supposed to be king. The 16th century was supposed to be the return of the Age of Camelot when his older brother, Arthur, claimed his birthright and became king of England. It was Arthur that had been tutored and trained to be king. Henry would have been destined for the church if not for the fickleness of fate that left his brother dead six months before his sixteenth birthday. Henry the Eighth rules like a second son that was always second best. He is impetuous, bombastic, corpulent, and prone to fits of fury. He is not a stupid man and always surrounded himself with intelligent men, disciplined men, who could provide him with wise counsel. He did not always take their advice, but he did always give them a chance to make a case.

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The most iconic image of Henry the Eighth painted by Holbein as a mural in Whitehall Palace. It was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1698, but survives through the numerous copies that were made of it. Notice the bulging calves. Henry was always very proud of them.

Henry preferred advisers named Thomas.

Thomas Wolsey
Thomas More
Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell worked for Thomas Wolsey and when the cardinal fell out of favor it could have been the end for Cromwell’s hopes as well. Cromwell is a lot of things, a complicated man, a sometimes hard man, but ultimately he is a survivor. It is so interesting that Hilary Mantel decided to paint a more sympathetic picture of him than what I’d previously thought him to be. He understood money and that true power does not reside with the man on the throne.

”The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

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Thomas More by Hans Holbein.

I first met Thomas More through his book Utopia in a class in college. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus was also required reading for the same class. I thought both books were fantastic because to truly understand the writings of these two important writers one must explore the history behind the books. So I wanted to love More, but as I learned more about him the title of his book became more and more an inappropriate extension of the man. His view of how the real world should work was not the Utopia he persuaded me could exist. He was opposed to the Protestant Reformation. He, with great fervor, began to hunt down anyone connected to the Reformation and interrogate, torture and burn them. He didn’t keep his distance from it. He was frequently down in the stench and the squalor of the dungeons watching his prisoners being broken on the rack. The flames of burning heretics danced in his eyes. He may have taken too much pleasure in his work.

My theory is anyone who wears a hairshirt all the time and scourges themselves for evening entertainment is not someone I want making decisions about my life. More may have been brilliant, but those beautiful marbles in his head were scrambled.

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There have been many beautiful actresses to play the enchanting Anne Boleyn, but my favorite is Natalie Dormer from The Tudors simply because she has that saucy smirk that could be used as such a weapon quite capable of bringing down a King or a kingdom to achieve her ambitions.

When the King, in his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, decides that the only way he is going to free himself from the albatross from Aragon, Catherine, is to break with the Roman Catholic Church. This puts the King in direct conflict with one of his most trusted advisers the before mentioned Thomas More. Sir Thomas cannot break with his beliefs. When he is asked to sign an oath supporting the King he refuses. He certainly had a martyr complex. In fact Cromwell in a last ditch effort to try and save More’s life points out his hubris in thinking of himself as a Christ figure. It was to no avail.

I do believe that Cromwell feels an uneasiness about the fates of the powerful men who came before him. He is always trying to hedge his bets, loaning money at ridiculous low interests to the aristocrats, soothing the relationship between Anne and her sister Mary (Henry’s current favorite bed warmer as he waits for Anne to pop open her corset.), taking care of embarrassing circumstances for other people, forming alliances with the enemies of his friends, and being kind to Henry’s only surviving child (Mary) with Catherine. He is always trying to anticipate the future. He worked to soften the blows to his enemies believing that someday they would be potential allies. He took in orphans, not just from his family, but even from people unconnected to him. He assessed their best aspects and put them with tutors so they would be useful to him in the future. He understands people and knows how to manipulate them and encourage them at the same time.

“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

He is but a man and there is no time when that is more evident than when his daughter Grace dies.

”Grace dies in his arms; she dies easily, as naturally as she was born. He eases her back against the damp sheet: a child of impossible perfection, her fingers uncurling like thin white leaves. I never knew her, he thinks; I never knew I had her. It has always seemed impossible to him that some act of his gave her life, some unthinking thing that he and Liz did, on some unmemorable night.”

The sweating sickness took his wife and both his daughters leaving only him and his son Gregory alive. Maybe those deaths is why he felt so compelled to fill his house with children. It didn’t have to be his children. He thought all children were salvageable, moldable, if encouraged to work at being better at what they were best at.

Cromwell grew up the son of a blacksmith. His father beat him so severely, in fact the book opens with a scene that showed the impassioned brutality that his father was capable of, that Cromwell leaves to join the army and seek his fortune abroad. He taught himself to read. He was always working his mind like a muscle making it stronger with every book he read. With every moment he spent studying the workings of economics, politics, and psychology (he didn’t know that was what it was called.) he was giving himself the means to make better decisions, to offer better advice, to hone his cunning.

He was truly a self made man who by sheer audacity and brilliance made it to the pinnacles of power. When he becomes sick though and is at his most vulnerable the fears of a child creep into his mind.

”On the stairs he can hear the efficient, deathly clip of his father’s steel-tipped boots.”

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Hilary Mantel, what big eyes you have.

Little is known about the early life of Thomas Cromwell. He would be pleased to know that. He was much more interested in knowing everything about everyone and careful about letting others know anything about him. He was a long game thinker. Something he does one day may not make sense to those around him until much later when the dominoes fall a new direction. Mantel will clothe him, put flesh on his bones, share his innermost thoughts, and show you a man capable of being ruthless, but just as likely to be compassionate. Though Henry was particularly fascinated with lopping off heads Cromwell knew that ultimately as you eliminate one enemy you only create more. If possible it is much smarter to blackmail, confuse, or convince an arch enemy, maybe not to be friends that would be expecting too much, but at least to become a passive challenger.

There are a lot of Thomas’s in this book and at times it can seem confusing, but the rule of thumb is if you are not clear about who is speaking or who is sharing their inner thoughts that would be Thomas Cromwell.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and highly recommended by the reader becoming more and more known as JK.

View all my reviews

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