Hilary Mantel: Why I wrote Wolf Hall

As the dramatisation of her historical novels comes to PBS Masterpiece, the author explains what first drew her to the curious figure of Thomas Cromwell

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In the City of London, behind the Bank of England, there is a little street called Austin Friars. Sober and narrow, it offers a glimpse of a city garden, something sweetly natural at the granite heart of the establishment. The garden belongs to Drapers’ Hall, which stands on the site of one of the great powerhouses of Tudor London. In the 1530s, Austin Friars was the home of Thomas Cromwell, who was, except for the king, the most powerful man in England. Rich, cultured, multilingual, a friend and patron of artists and scholars, he was a master of the political arts. The house was a bustling ministerial headquarters, where petitioners from all over Europe pursued the royal secretary for favours and begged for a glimpse, a word.

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Thomas Cromwell was a man of property. He had apartments at court, and the Rolls House in Chancery Lane went with his job. London was small then, and his Hackney and Stepney houses stood in the fields. He had a hunting lodge in Canonbury where in summer, in his rare quiet moments, he could sit in one of the garden towers and look down on London’s tree-tops, contemplating the daily challenges thrown up by his master, the exacting, clever, capricious Henry VIII.

Who was he? Where did he come from? To find the answer you had to cross the bandit country west of London, to Putney, where he was born on a date unknown. The year 1485 seems to fit. It was the year of the battle of Bosworth, the year that Henry Tudor (according to legend) picked the crown of England out of a thorn bush. It’s where, for convenience, the historians begin “modern history”, sloughing off the Plantagenets, the Middle Ages, the old world of candlelit, Roman Catholic England, and inaugurating a new era of hard-eyed moneymen, with Thomas Cromwell leading from the front.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. The people in Putney had no idea a new era had begun. To them the triumph of the new regime must have looked like another incident in the civil war that England’s aristocrats had been fighting for a generation. No one knew the Tudors would manage to hang on to power for more than a century and reshape their country – thanks in no little part to the unremarked, unrecorded birth of the son of Walter Cromwell, the parish bully. 

As the 15th century closed, Thomas was the country’s most common male name. It was the equivalent of calling your baby “It”. Thomases came two a penny, and no one noticed this one till he was a teenager, and in trouble. If he went to school, nobody remembered. At some point he disappeared: possibly in dispute with the law, as his father was so frequently. Walter Cromwell was not a poor man. He ran a small brewery; he had an interest in a fulling mill, and possibly a smithy. But he was the neighbour from hell. He consumed a good deal of his own beer, or (since he was routinely fined for watering his ale) perhaps someone else’s. He was violent and quarrelsome: a father worth escaping.

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It is at the point of escape – the night before the 15-year-old boy is booted out of his home and his childhood – that my novel Wolf Hall opens. It begins with a beaten boy lying on cobblestones, his vision clouded by his own blood, while his father bellows down at him, “So now get up”. The trilogy – the last book is in progress – will follow Thomas Cromwell’s life from that moment – from that instant, that pulse beat, when he thinks he is going to die – to the reprise some 40 years on, when he thinks the same, and he is right: he ends on Tower Hill, looking at the executioner’s boots, an axe poised above him. The project is like a breath held. I want to know how it felt to live in the space of that breath: to begin as Walter’s no-good heir, and end as Earl of Essex.