By Charles Matthews

Monday, March 29, 2010

2. "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, pp. 14-27

Part I, II: "Paternity," 1527
It is 27 years later, and Thomas Cromwell is now a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England. Henry VIII is getting restless about not having a male heir and trying to find a way to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Cromwell is sensitive about his humble origins, which Stephen Gardiner twits him about in the opening of the chapter: "You must have done some river work, when you were a boy." Cromwell notes that Gardiner is "the king's unacknowledged cousin" and observes that "he resents his knowledge that if they met on a dark night, Master Thos. Cromwell would be the one who walked away dusting off his hands and smiling."

Wolsey is beautifully characterized as "like a leopard settling in a warm spot." While genial, he maintains his authority over Cromwell by joking that Cromwell "walks in demanding cherries in April and lettuce in December" and that "he goes about the countryside committing outrages, and charging them to the cardinal's accounts." Wolsey, too, is from lower-class origins: "the scholar son of a prosperous and pious master butcher, a guildman, a man who also kept a large and well-regulated inn, of the type used by the best travelers." He has sent Cromwell to Yorkshire on a matter of business, diverting the income from two monastic foundations into "the two colleges he is founding: Cardinal College, at Oxford, and a college in his hometown of Ipswich." Wolsey envisions the colleges as his memorial, "carrying into the world the cardinal's wit, his sense of wonder and of beauty, his instinct for decorum and pleasure, his finesse." Cromwell observes that Wolsey "cannot quite accept that real property cannot be changed into money with the same speed and ease with which he changes a wafer into the body of Christ."

We get our first reference to Thomas More here, and it's hardly as flattering as Robert Bolt's portrait in A Man for All Seasons. Wolsey is characterized as the type of person who, upon hearing of "some nest of heretics in the city" would be reluctant to use force against them, but would simply threaten that "Thomas More will get hold of them and shut them in his cellar. And all we will hear is the sound of screaming."

We have a little bit of exposition of what has happened with Cromwell in the intervening years: that he served in the French army, that he lived in Antwerp with a widow named Anselma, and that he married a woman named Liz with whom he has children.

And we have a glimpse of Henry VIII: "a man of some thirty-five years of age ... in good health and of a hearty appetite" who has his "bowels opened every day," whose "joints are supple" and whose "bones support" him, and who wants "to marry another lady. Any lady. Any well-connected princess whom he thinks might give him a son." (Not the best grammar there: "whom" should be "who.") The king's problem comes down to an interpretation of Scripture, which of course contradicts itself, Deuteronomy urging one to marry one's brother's widow, Leviticus forbidding it. And "the question of which takes priority was thrashed out in Rome, for a fat fee, by leading prelates, twenty years ago when the dispensations" -- i.e. for Henry to marry Katherine, his brother Arthur's widow -- "were issued, and delivered under a papal seal."

We learn that the cardinal has a son named Thomas Winter, and a daughter named Dorothea, who is a nun. Wolsey speculates on whether Cromwell has any illegitimate offspring himself "running around on the banks of the Thames." He points out that he was 15 when he ran away from home and reflects, "It amuses Wolsey that he doesn't know his age." It's a mark of class distinction between Wolsey, "the butcher's beef-fed son," and Cromwell, whose exact birthday is unknown. And Wolsey, knowing of the dislike Cromwell and Gardiner feel for each other, "knows quite well that, dissatisfied with their original parentage, they are fighting to be his favorite son."

Wolsey's proposal to send Gardiner to Rome to sound out the possibility of an annulment of the king's marriage reveals that Cromwell has also had the kind of experience in Rome that Wolsey hasn't: "He has never felt the chill at the nape of the neck that makes you look over your shoulder when, passing from the Tiber's golden light, you move into some great bloc of shadow. By some fallen column, by some chaster ruin, the thieves of integrity wait, some bishop's whore, some nephew-of-a-nephew, some monied seducer with furred breath; he feels, sometimes, fortunate to have escaped that city with his soul intact." Cromwell insists that if Gardiner goes, he take plenty of money to use as bribes.

If he succeeds, Wolsey says, he will marry Henry, "smartly, to a French princess." Cromwell knows that Wolsey has more than one princess in mind: "He never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities." Wolsey's power is such that "He used to say, 'The king will do such and such.' Then he began to say, 'We will do such and such.' Now he says, 'This is what I will do.'"

There is a brief recapitulation of the arrangements that brought about Henry's marriage to Katherine when "he was eighteen, guileless" and when he recognized, "I have married a virgin since my poor brother did not touch her; I have married an alliance, her Spanish relatives; but, above all, I have married for love." All of which are part of the problem now.

Cromwell takes his leave of Wolsey, and we get a portrait of our protagonist from the author's point of view:
Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt -- ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. 
In short, a Renaissance man. Like Machiavelli.

As he heads for his town house, he meets up with Rafe Sadler, "a slight young man with pale eyes" who, the "Cast of Characters" tells us, is "Cromwell's chief clerk, brought up at Austin Friars." Sadler fills him in on the news while he has been away, and Cromwell starts to ask him something about the Duke of Norfolk, then changes his mind.

"Someone is screaming, down by the quays. The boatmen are singing. There is a faint, faraway splashing; perhaps they are drowning someone."

Just another day in Tudor London.

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