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Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall
AuthorHilary Mantel
Audio read bySimon Slater (2009)
Ben Miles (2020)
GenreHistorical fiction
PublisherFourth Estate (UK)
Publication date
30 April 2009
Publication placeUnited Kingdom
Media typePrint (hardback)
LC ClassPR6063.A438 W65 2009
Followed byBring Up the Bodies 

Wolf Hall is a 2009 historical novel by English author Hilary Mantel, published by Fourth Estate, named after the Seymour family's seat of Wolfhall, or Wulfhall, in Wiltshire. Set in the period from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is a sympathetic fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More. The novel won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.[1][2] In 2012, The Observer named it as one of "The 10 best historical novels".[3]

The book is the first in a trilogy; the sequel Bring Up the Bodies was published in 2012.[4] The last book in the trilogy is The Mirror and the Light (2020), which covers the last four years of Cromwell's life.[5]



In 1500, the teenage Thomas Cromwell runs away from home to flee his abusive father, and seeks his fortune in France as a soldier.

By 1527 the well-travelled Cromwell has returned to England and is now a lawyer, a married father of three, and is highly respected as the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with a reputation for successful deal-making. His life takes a tragic turn when his wife and two daughters abruptly die of the sweating sickness, leaving him a widower. His sister-in-law, Johane, comes to keep house for him.

Cromwell is still in Wolsey's service in 1529, when the Cardinal falls out of favour with King Henry VIII because of his failure to arrange an annulment of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell manages to buy the Cardinal a little time before everything the Cardinal owns is repossessed and given to Henry's mistress, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell subsequently decides to relocate the Cardinal and his entourage to a second home in Esher, and the Cardinal moves on to York.

Though he knows the Cardinal is doomed, Cromwell begins negotiations on his behalf with the King. During the course of his visits he meets the recently widowed Mary Boleyn, Anne's elder sister, and is intrigued by her. Cromwell is eventually summoned to meet Anne and finds Henry's loyalty to her unfathomable.

Continuing to gain favour with both the King and Anne, Cromwell is disturbed by Wolsey's activities in York, but is shocked when he learns that the Cardinal has been recalled to London to face treason charges and has died on the way. Cromwell mourns his death and vows to take vengeance on those involved in his downfall. Despite his known loyalty to Wolsey, Cromwell retains his favoured status with the King, and is sworn into the King's council after interpreting one of Henry's nightmares, about his deceased elder brother, as a symbol that Henry should govern with the blessing of his late father and brother.

Cromwell continues to advise Anne, and works towards her ascent to Queen in hopes that he will rise too. Just as the wedding appears imminent, Henry Percy, a former lover of Anne's, declares that he is her legal husband and still loves her. Cromwell visits Percy on Anne's behalf and threatens him into silence, securing his position as a favourite in the Howard household.

King Henry travels to France for a successful conference with the French. Anne, finally secure in her position, is able to marry Henry in a private ceremony and to consummate their relationship. She quickly becomes pregnant and Henry has her crowned Queen in a ceremony which Cromwell organises to perfection.

Historical background


Born to a working-class family of no position or name, Cromwell rose to become the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to the King. He survived Wolsey's fall from grace to eventually take his place as the most powerful of Henry's ministers. In that role he observed turning points of English history, as Henry asserted his authority to declare his marriage annulled from Catherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn, broke from Rome, established the independence of the Church of England, and called for the dissolution of the monasteries.

The novel is a re-envisioning of historical and literary records; in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons Cromwell is portrayed as the calculating, unprincipled opposite of Thomas More's honour and rectitude. Mantel's novel offers an alternative to that portrayal, an intimate portrait of Cromwell as a tolerant, pragmatic, and talented man attempting to serve King, country and family amid the political machinations of Henry's court and the religious upheavals of the Reformation, in contrast to More's viciously punitive adherence to the old Roman Catholic order that Henry is sweeping away.



Mantel said she spent five years researching and writing the book, trying to match her fiction to the historical record.[6] To avoid contradicting history she created a card catalogue, organised alphabetically by character, with each card containing notes indicating where a particular historical figure was on relevant dates. "You really need to know, where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can't have him in London if he's supposed to be somewhere else," she explained.

In an interview with The Guardian, Mantel stated her aim to place the reader in "that time and that place, putting you into Henry's entourage. The essence of the thing is not to judge with hindsight, not to pass judgement from the lofty perch of the 21st century when we know what happened. It's to be there with them in that hunting party at Wolf Hall, moving forward with imperfect information and perhaps wrong expectations, but in any case moving forward into a future that is not pre-determined, but where chance and hazard will play a terrific role."[7]



Wolf Hall includes a large cast of fictionalised historical persons. In addition to those already mentioned, prominent characters include:



The title comes from the name of the Seymour family seat at Wolfhall or Wulfhall in Wiltshire; the title's allusion to the old Latin saying Homo homini lupus ("Man is wolf to man") serves as a constant reminder of the dangerously opportunistic nature of the world through which Cromwell navigates.[8]



Critical reception


Wolf Hall received generally positive reviews from critics.[9][10] On The Omnivore, based on British press reviews, the book received an aggregated score of 4.5 out of 5.[11] On Book Marks, the book received, based mostly on American publications, "rave" reviews with 11 critic reviews and 7 being "rave" and 4 being "positive".[12] Culture Critic gave it an aggregated critic score of 85 percent,[13] while The BookScore gave it an aggregated critic score of 9.0 both based on an accumulation of British and American press reviews.[14][15] In Bookmarks Magazine, a magazine that aggregates critic reviews of books, the book received a (4.00 out of 5) based on critic reviews with the critical summary saying, "Wolf Hall offers a fascinating and expertly researched look at a man famously villainized in the play and film A Man for All Seasons and Showtimes's more recent bodice-ripping series The Tudors". [16] Globally, the work was received generally well (with rating assessments based on the critic reviews from Complete Review ranging from scores such as B+) with Complete Review saying on the consensus " Very positive – and see it as a possible breakout book for her".[17]

In The Guardian, Christopher Tayler wrote "Wolf Hall succeeds on its own terms and then some, both as a non-frothy historical novel and as a display of Mantel's extraordinary talent. Lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances, and very funny at times, it's not like much else in contemporary British fiction. A sequel is apparently in the works, and it's not the least of Mantel's achievements that the reader finishes this 650-page book wanting more."[18]

Susan Bassnett, in Times Higher Education, wrote in a rare negative review, "dreadfully badly written... Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have yet to meet anyone outside the Booker panel who managed to get to the end of this tedious tome. God forbid there might be a sequel, which I fear is on the horizon."[19]

In The Observer, Olivia Laing wrote, "Over two decades, she has gained a reputation as an elegant anatomiser of malevolence and cruelty. From the French Revolution of A Place of Greater Safety (1992) to the Middle England of Beyond Black (2005), hers are scrupulously moral – and scrupulously unmoralistic – books that refuse to shy away from the underside of life, finding even in disaster a kind of bleak and unconsoling humour. It is that supple movement between laughter and horror that makes this rich pageant of Tudor life her most humane and bewitching novel."[20]

Vanora Bennett in The Times wrote, "as soon as I opened the book I was gripped. I read it almost non-stop. When I did have to put it down, I was full of regret the story was over, a regret I still feel. This is a wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle – one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too."[21]

Controversy over historical accuracy


In the Washington Post, Gregory Wolfe notes "One of her stated goals in writing Wolf Hall was to take on Robert Bolt's 1954 stage play, A Man for All Seasons ", which lauded Thomas More.[22] Furthermore, "Critics have pointed out that the author’s liberties with the historical record demonstrate a clear ideological bias. Mantel was raised Catholic but is now a vocal critic of that church, which she has said 'is not an institution for respectable people'."[23]

Wolfe cites historians:

  • (atheist[24]) David Starkey: that there is "not a scrap of evidence" for the narrative and describing the plot as "total fiction",
  • (Jewish[25]) Simon Schama: "the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture," and
  • (Catholic[26]) Eamon Duffy who elsewhere "despises Cromwell. He is mystified by his makeover in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall from a thuggish ruthless commoner to a thoughtful sensitive figure."[27]

Neo-conservative Catholic author George Weigel described the novels as "bad history", but cited their success as proof that "that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere." He wrote, "Protestant anti-Catholicism in the U.K. has long since been superseded by secular anti-Catholicism, but the cultural afterburn remains virtually identical: to the Hillary Mantels of 21st-century Britain, Catholicism is retrograde, priggish, obsessive, fanatical, and, well, un-English."[28]

Awards and lists


The book continued to receive acclaim among many critics' lists: according to The Greatest Books, a site that aggregates book lists, it is "The 213th greatest book of all time".[29] A poll of literary experts by the Independent Bath Literature Festival voted Wolf Hall the greatest novel from 1995 to 2015.[30] It also ranked third in a BBC Culture poll of the best novels since 2000.[31] In 2019, The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century ranked Wolf Hall first.[32]

In July 2024 the New York Times named Wolf Hall the third best book of the 21st century.[33]

Awards and nominations






In January 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced it would stage adaptations by Mike Poulton of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in its Winter season.[39] The production transferred to London's Aldwych Theatre in May 2014, for a limited run until October.[40]

Producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel brought the London productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, starring Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell; Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn; Lucy Briers as Catherine of Aragon; and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII, to Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre[41] in March 2015 for a 15-week run. The double-bill has been re-titled Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 for American audiences.[42] The play was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Play.



In 2012, the BBC announced it would adapt Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for BBC Two, for broadcast in 2015.[43] On 8 March 2013, the BBC announced Mark Rylance had been cast as Thomas Cromwell.[44] The first episode was broadcast in the United States on PBS's Masterpiece on 5 April 2015.[45] In June 2015, Amazon announced exclusive rights to stream Masterpiece programmes, including Wolf Hall, on Amazon Prime.[46] After suffering an extensive delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the second series adapting the third book, The Mirror and the Light, was filmed between November 2023 and April 2024 [47] and is expected to air in late 2024. [48]


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  2. ^ "National Book Critics Circle: awards". Bookcritics.org. Retrieved 11 June 2010.
  3. ^ Skidelsky, William (13 May 2012). "The 10 best historical novels". The Observer. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  4. ^ William Georgiades (4 May 2012). "Hilary Mantel's Heart of Stone". The Slate Book Review. Slate.com. Retrieved 6 May 2012.
  5. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (15 August 2012). "Hilary Mantel discusses Thomas Cromwell's past, presence and future". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
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  24. ^ Phillips, Francis (10 March 2011). "'Gay and atheist' David Starkey is defending Christian conscience more clearly than our bishops". Catholic Herald.
  25. ^ "British historian Simon Schama awarded a knighthood by Prince William". The Times of Israel. Jerusalem. 6 February 2019.
  26. ^ Marshall, Peter. "Catholic historian Eamon Duffy at the top of his game". The Tablet.
  27. ^ Garvey, Anne (11 February 2021). "(Review) A People's Tragedy, by Eamon Duffy". The Cambridge Critique.
  28. ^ Wiegel, George (22 April 2015). ""Wolf Hall" and Upmarket Anti-Catholicism". First Things. Retrieved 22 February 2024.
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  30. ^ Clark, Nick (22 February 2015). "Wolf Hall outstanding novel of our time, say Bath Festival judges". The Independent. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  31. ^ Ciabattari, Jane (19 January 2015). "The 21st Century's 12 greatest novels". BBC. Retrieved 25 August 2019.
  32. ^ "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. London. 21 September 2019. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  33. ^ "The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century". The New York Times. 8 July 2024. Retrieved 12 July 2024.
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  35. ^ Flood, Alison (1 April 2010). "Booker rivals clash again on Walter Scott prize shortlist". The Guardian. London.
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  41. ^ "Wolf Hall Parts One & Two on Broadway". Wolf Hall Parts One & Two on Broadway.
  42. ^ Hetrick, Adam; Shenton, Mark (10 September 2014). "Broadway Producers Eye Winter Garden with Brit Import of Wolf Hall Double-Bill". Playbill.
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  44. ^ "Mark Rylance set for Hilary Mantel TV drama". BBC News. 8 March 2013. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
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  46. ^ Petski, Denise (30 June 2015). "Amazon Nabs Exclusive Licensing Rights To 'Wolf Hall', 'Grantchester' & More". Deadline. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
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