Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Henry VIII, Cromwell, Thomas More—three larger than life personages all appear in Hillary Mantel's book Wolf Hall. While I can't imagine wanting to live in England at that time, I can vicariously, and from a time distance of over 484 years, be involved in the machinations of the realm of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII grows tired of his wife Katherine when she bears him no heir , a son, and he wants the marriage annulled. The fact that he and Katherine have a child—albeit a girl—does not prevent him from desiring the marriage to be nullified, repudiated as if it did not exist because he wished to marry Anne Boleyn.

To be released from a marriage in an age when the Pope's authority meant a strict obedience to his Papacy required stealth, cunning and diplomacy.

Thomas More, a strong Catholic, refused to bend to the King's desire to both have the marriage annulled and later on to take an oath making the king and not the Pope head of the English Church. The refusal to take the vow eventually leads to his confinement in the Tower and then to his death.

Cromwell, on the other hand, enabled the marriage to proceed by a variety of nefarious moves—or perhaps shrewd moves.

Knowing some history—we know that Anne—in time, after giving birth to a daughter and several miscarriages, was beheaded in 1536—only three years after her marriage to Henry. Mantle's depiction of Anne portrays her as a unlikeable and conniving woman.

Henry married six times and beyond the scope of this book—however—his wives didn't fare too well. Poor Katherine, or Catherine, of Aragon's marriage was annulled and her freedom was restricted , under watch and guard, at a grim castle. After Anne Boleyn came Jane Seymour who died a few days after childbirth. Another annulment—Anne of Cleves, but at least she did better than Catherine Howard who was beheaded. His last wife—Catherine Parr became a widow.

Cromwell and More, both enigmatic and fascinating, appear in a number of books and plays. Thomas More, often depicted as a saint while Cromwell is often seen as diabolically shrewd. Recently a few historians have looked at Cromwell in a different light—politically acute, behind the scenes in the rewriting of English policy, and instrumental in the movement of England into modern times.

Hillary Mantel's Cromwell is portrayed in a favorable light—but who knows for certain. That he was disliked by the nobles because of his lowly birth is certain—that he was feared because of his powerful position was also certain. That he used any means to effect the ends is debateable— or certain— depending upon the historian.

Every story must have an inciting incident which propels the story forward. Is the inciting event Henry VIII's desire to be released from his marriage? Does everything proceed from there?

William Tyndale is in the background with his translation of scriptures into English in 1524 . The Church of England was in a period of turmoil and Tyndale moved to Germany where he continued with his work. Initially Henry VIII opposed the translation and confiscated copies of the Tyndale Bible.

Tyndale was betrayed by a friend, tried, and imprisoned near modern day Brussels. Despite being in prison he tried to continue his work of translation. "On October 6, 1536...he was strangled and then burned at the stake. As he died, Tyndale prayed, Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

In 1539 Henry VIII "sanctioned the printing of an authorized version of an English Bible..." * ( about.com)

Of course, as Mantel indicates, it was to Henry's advantage to distance the Church of England from the Pope, and to require allegiance to himself as the head of the Church of England.

So indeed—the kindling for all the changes may indeed be the desire to be released from a marriage that didn't provide him with an heir.

I suspect that Hillary will continue the story for it is Cromwell who convinces Henry to marry Anne of Cleves as part of his plan to "assure the support of the German princes against the Holy Roman Empire. The marriage was a disaster and the alliance failed. Henry withdrew his support from Cromwell, who was charged with treason. He was executed at the Tower of London on July 28, 1540." * (BBC History)

Odd how things work out.
Cromwell who worked so hard to find a way to allow Henry VIII the chance to nullify his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and have a legitimate heir, was beheaded four years after Anne Boleyn's similar fate.

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