Wolf Hall

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Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate; £18.99

This is the story of how, between the years 1525 and 1533, Henry VIII secured a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his lover, Anne Boleyn.

In this wonderful novel Hilary Mantel marshals a huge cast to bring the England of the early 1500s to vivid life. This was a society on a historical faultline. Though the aristocracy dominated all aspects of life, the feudal system on which their power depended was being undermined by new ways of accumulating wealth. The development of financial capitalism across Europe was eating into the vitals of feudalism and throwing up a new class who were despised by the nobility for their "low breeding", but who were capable and practical, and who owed their advancement to ability, not birth.

Mantel tells her story through the person of Thomas Cromwell. Though he was born in Putney in 1485 the son of a blacksmith cum brewer, by 1532 Cromwell had risen to become Henry VIII's first minister.

Cromwell was a model example of the rising bourgeoisie. He spoke fluent French, Latin and Dutch, having spent his early life in the employ of the Frescobaldi family of merchant bankers in Florence and dealing in cloth in the Netherlands. On his return to England, Cromwell fell into the employ of Cardinal Wolsey and prospered. Like Cromwell, Thomas Wolsey wasn't an aristocrat. He was born in 1471, from humble origins (reputedly the son of a butcher) but rose to become Lord Chancellor of England and a serious candidate for the papacy. Wolsey fell when he couldn't deliver the divorce that Henry demanded. Cromwell rose by showing he could.

Mantel's Cromwell is pugnacious and aggressive, but he's also witty, articulate, charming, compassionate and generous. In an age of religious intolerance, he's against the persecution of heretics - in contrast to the portrait of Cromwell to be found elsewhere.

Mantel also offers an alternative take on Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. Her More is no gentle saint. Mantel reminds us that when More was chancellor between 1529 and 1532, he actively persecuted religious heretics - using torture to extract confessions. When his record is flung in his face More justifies his use of violence as being in the service of the state and Christendom. His victims, he explains, challenged the established order and deserved their fate. Having done all he can to rescue More from his own hypocrisy, Cromwell abandons him to the executioner's axe with little regret.

Wolf Hall is 672 pages long but I didn't want it to end. Mantel has done a remarkable job of recreating Tudor England. It's an England in transition between a medieval past and a bourgeois future, still over a century distant - a future which will be built by another Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel is reputed to be writing a sequel to Wolf Hall. Good.