Hilary Mantel: Why I wrote Wolf Hall

The author explains what first drew her to the curious figure of Thomas Cromwell

About the year 1500, the young Thomas Cromwell fled England. The next few years are dark. “I was a ruffian in my youth,” was all he ever said. It seems likely he joined the French army, as a mercenary, and campaigned with them in Italy. Destitute in the wake of French defeat, he joined the household of a Florentine merchant banker, perhaps as a servant; his uncle had been a cook. Agile-minded and quick to learn languages, he was promoted; facts are scant, we can only guess. Before the age of 30, he nudges on to the historical record, sighted in Venice and in Rome, in Antwerp; he is a banker, an apprentice lawyer, a broker in the wool trade. Then he comes home, to the hopeful country of the young Henry VIII. Soon he is talent-spotted by Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s omni-competent, vain and splendid minister.

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Wolsey took to him. What’s not to like? The scowling, asocial Cromwell is an invention of posterity, over-influenced by Holbein’s dour portrait. His contemporaries saw easy charm and social adroitness. He was ingenious, keen to please, irreverently funny; his energy seemed inexhaustible. The writer Nicola Shulman has remarked that he lived in an element of “decelerated time”, accomplishing a week’s work in a day. He acted for the cardinal as lawyer and business advisor, and when Wolsey fell from power he transferred his services to the king and did what the cardinal couldn’t do; he freed his master from his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the woman he believed would give him a son to secure the future of his dynasty.

The fall of Anne Boleyn is the subject of Bring Up the Bodies, my second Cromwell novel. The novel, and the TV retelling, ends with her execution.

Why revisit some of the best- known events in English history? It seemed to me that at the core of the story there was something missing. There was a moving area of darkness where Cromwell ought to be. Much studied by academic historians, he appears in popular history as an all-purpose, pre-packaged villain. In fiction and drama he’s just off the page or in the wings, doing something nefarious: but what? I wanted to put the spotlight on him; more than that, I wanted to get behind his eyes, the eyes of a man obscurely born, and watch as his country shapes itself about him, a dazzle of possibility.

To do that I had to accustom my inner eye to bare, underfurnished rooms, where possessions are kept in chests, and floors are strewn with rushes, and Turkey carpets glow on tabletops in the houses of the wealthy. I needed to wear, in my imagination, fresh linen, heavy draping wool, damask and diamonds. My palate had to grow used to the sweet, spicy, scented tastes of Tudor cooking, to winter stockfish and summer fruits tarts. I had to live in a gated city, with green open spaces surrounding monasteries, with the long gardens of noble houses running down to the Thames: a London where the river was the main highway, and there was only one bridge, sometimes decorated with severed heads. One mistake and you were finished, if you worked for Henry VIII – or if you married him.

Once I felt comfortable in this world I opened the door to others. The first two Cromwell novels have been adapted for the RSC (above) by Mike Poulton. After two successful seasons they are heading for Broadway. Now a six-part series – another cast, another adaptor, a fresh take on the material – brings the stories to the screen. People say to me, “Is it strange to see the people brought to life?” I think, but when were they ever dead?

The story of Cromwell, Henry and his wives is about power politics and religious strife, but also about shame and sexual desire and the mysterious destabilising power of femininity. In this era, women become players as never before. The figures in this drama live in our psyche. They’re part of our folklore, our mythology. You can reshape them, and choose – every writer chooses differently – how you relate to the historical facts. My own method is to wrap the fiction around the documented record, to let imagination lead us by touch into the rooms where history can’t shine a light. The truth is always best: if you can get at it. Time and again, looking at the events of Henry’s reign and Cromwell’s life, you say, “You couldn’t make it up”. Or you could, but no one would believe you.

Thomas Cromwell is a man who makes his own luck. As a boy he loses his home, his language. He rebuilds his life but his wife and daughters die, his patron Wolsey is hounded to his grave. Damaged but not broken, Thomas keeps climbing, agile, tenacious and without illusions; as he says in the third novel, smiling, “Every chancer has his chance with me”. He is a recognisably modern man, and we think we understand him; but the swift savagery with which he solves his problems leaves us shaking in our shoes. At the end of the story (so far) he has a hand on the next rung of the ladder. Soon to be Lord Cromwell, he is climbing towards the height of his power: he has four years to live, in the puzzled regard of a king who is perhaps already a little afraid of what he’s created.

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Wolf Hall begins on BBC2 tonight (Wednesday 21st January) at 9:00pm