Staff Picks

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Sally Haldorson

July 09, 2015


Not unexpectedly, there are plenty of leadership lessons, or perhaps warnings, one can draw out of these two Booker Prize winning novels about Thomas Cromwell's 'reign' as King Henry the VIII's primary advisor.

There are many instances in the British monarchy of kings, born into title, who are aided, and even led, by low-born, but highly intelligent advisers. Thomas Beckett, whose father was a merchant, became King Henry II's best friend until appointed Lord Chancellor, which caused him to switch his allegiance from Henry to the church and divided the two friends until Beckett's death. (Beckett was killed, somewhat by accident, when a group of the king's knights took Henry's bad-mouthing of Beckett to be an actual request to hunt him down and murder him, which is a sort of weird "oops" moment in history.)

Then there is the story of Simon de Montfort, who was the son of an Earl, a crusader, and land owner. While de Montfort was higher born, he was the third of four sons, not favored to amount to much. And his tumultuous friendship with King Henry III was another example of a counselor subsuming the authority or power of the actual king. There was a faction in the government that wished for reform—in the form of expanding parliamentary voting, which was in effect a way to disempower the king—and that faction used de Montfort as a kind of hired gun in the battle against Henry. Eventually de Montfort was killed by a militia of knights instructed by Henry to hunt de Montfort down at the Battle of Evesham.

Perhaps the greatest story of a king being led by a commoner is that of Thomas Cromwell's 'reign' as King Henry the VIII's primary adviser. The fact that he is <spoiler!> later beheaded at the whim of the king (and the religious politics of the time) can either be taken as a cautionary tale, or considered exemplar of a life lived to its breadth, if not its length. Not unexpectedly, there are some leadership lessons, and perhaps even warnings, one can draw out of the two Booker Prize winning novels about Thomas Cromwell's life.

Author Hilary Mantel is writing historical fiction, and for every book that is written about historical figures, even when meticulously researched as is Mantel's, or presented as a biography, the author certainly has a point of view and a certain agenda. Here, Mantel is presenting readers with a Cromwell very different from how other historians have portrayed him. What Mantel is most interested in is Cromwell's rise to power, from blacksmith's son to adviser, confidante, and 'fixer' to Henry VIII, King of England. Cromwell was often called upon to handle delicate situations—the most notable procuring Henry's divorce from his current wife, Catherine, to whom he had been married for nearly a quarter of a century. Cromwell accomplished what the King's prime counselor, Cardinal Wolsey, could not so when the King (under the influence of Anne Boleyn) brought down Wolsey, Cromwell had a decision to make. He could, I suppose, have worked to undermine the King, but instead, he realized that he would benefit more by working with the King, and also knew that if he could help Henry with his divorce, he would accomplish something else: break up the hold that the Catholic Church had in England. Cromwell was an advocate for the Reformation and implemented a program that brought down monasteries because he, a merchant, believed that the church hoarded money within, while the government could use that money for national security.

What fascinated me most about Mantel's Cromwell was his ability to "work the system." No doubt some viewed him as a master manipulator, but his talent was a keen understanding of money, and the ability to get sh*t done. But he was also able to create relationships with anyone who was useful to him. He was unconcerned with class and status, and valued wisdom and street smarts above education and/or birth, because that's how he made his way up the ladder to become a merchant and a lawyer. Running away from his abusive father's household at a young age, Cromwell traveled to France and Italy, doing whatever was to be done in order to survive, making himself useful to the right kind of men, including a banker, and made enough money to mask the fact that he had no family standing or history. He was truly a self-made man.

So... Cromwell is credited for procuring Henry's divorce from Catherine. This can be seen strictly as a way to satisfy a king who needed to have an heir when Catherine could not provide him one, but looked at from a different angle, Cromwell was also serving his own desire to see the government empowered instead of the church by securing a sort of "Kings are all powerful and need not be held beneath the thumb of the Pope" ruling in parliament. Everyone was required to sign a pledge to the king in response to this ruling, but one particular person held out, Sir Thomas More, who was subsequently beheaded for treason. Cromwell was also instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn, who became an enemy of his over time. Mantel seems to conclude that this was because Boleyn could not produce an heir and Henry wanted to make a new match with Jane Seymour. (Other historians explain the falling out as due to disagreement on how to use the funds freed up from the dissolution of the monasteries.) So, Cromwell again 'fixed' the situation by investigating (i.e. validating) rumors regarding Boleyn's relationships with other men. Boleyn and her alleged lovers were beheaded.

It's easy to judge Cromwell as, well... a murderer. Or even a political assassin. Certainly he didn't win any popularity awards, as most people around the king were frightened of his power. It's also easy to find his own beheading a sort of deserved end. But Mantel complicates that picture by portraying Cromwell as a loving father, good husband, a conscientious caretaker of the people who worked for him, and a devoted servant to the crown. Yes, he worked for his own advantage in terms of status, but there is no indication that he abused or misused people below him.

When I say that there are lessons to be learned from Cromwell, I'm not advocating that we model our own leadership or success by his standards. Certainly the cut-throat nature of 16th century politics—very much, either behead or be beheaded—required some ruthless maneuvers, but clearly Cromwell chose the pool in which he played, so we can't be too forgiving. No matter how sympathetic an individual Mantel's Cromwell is, perhaps it's much smarter to use his success as a sort of "anti-lesson," as he seems to have believed that the ends really did justify the means, and in the end, that too was his undoing.

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