When I began reading, I realized Thomas Cromwell, the main character in this fictional work, was not based on that best known British Cromwell, Oliver. Thomas was associated with Henry VIII, and lived some generations before Oliver.
Thomas began life as the much abused son of a blacksmith, so often beaten that he ran away at a young age, looking for an army to join. Eventually he became a successful merchant in Europe, fluent in several languages. In Reformation England as the Pope's church lost its power to Henry's need for a male heir and some of the money that flowed to Rome, Thomas became one of the king's most effective and trusted advisers. Richard Marius, a scholar Jim knew at the University of Tennessee, describes him this way in his book Thomas More:
Even more dangerous and comprehensible to them [the English bishops] was the clever bureaucratic inventiveness of Thomas Cromwell and his band of resolute, impatient administrative innovators rapidly rooting out the worn old traditions of inefficient royal governance and replacing them with the steely and impersonal power of the modern state.
And there's nothing like routine beheadings and heretic burnings to make the impersonal power of the modern state seem appealing. The book ends with the death of Thomas More and a planned visit by Thomas Cromwell to Wolf Hall, where Jane Seymour's family lives. Thomas eventually (1540) lost his head; his conservative enemies used his promotion of the disasterous marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves to ruin him.
I kept my iPhone close at hand as I read to learn more about countless important people of the time, from Anne Boleyn, to William Tyndale, John Petyt, Guido Camillo, who created a memory machine, Hans Holbein, who painted many of the players in this book, and Eustace Chapuys, the French diplomat whose memoir surely was useful to the author.
Thomas More is closely examined; though he is singularly unappealing, Thomas Cromwell tries to make him comfortable when he is in the Tower, and delays his death as long as possible. More, a heretic hater with no pity for others and a taste for self-flagellation, refused to sign the loyalty oath, which made it treasonable to deny Henry's titles or jurisdiction. More's refusal was based on his belief in a higher power, the church of Rome. From our vantage point it does seem hard to make the case that support of the wretchedly corrupt, power-hungry church of Rome of the time was a good reason to die.
Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize in 2009 and a spot in Charlotte's Favorite Books for 2011.