I just finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a work of historical fiction that recounts the events leading up to the English Reformation through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who served as one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors.
In probably the most famous retelling of this story – Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which examines the same period through the eyes of Thomas More – Cromwell is portrayed much less positively. Here, More is the one who seems dogmatic and difficult and petty, while Cromwell comes across as politically savvy, yes, but also as someone who is thoughtful and even caring.
For people who are fans of all things English, this is a wonderful read. The characters are sympathetically drawn, and the life of Henry VIII – and his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry the future Queen Anne Boleyn, which leads to a break with Rome and opens the way to the Anglican Communion – comes alive under Mantel’s masterful writing.
Because I enjoyed the book so much, I didn’t want to leave the period, and I’m now re-reading Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More. As a straight-up work of biographical history, it’s not as entertaining as Mantel’s volume, but it’s a wonderful look at one of England’s most famous and faithful Lord Chancellors, who gave up his life for the sake of his beliefs.