Wolf Hall is as rich in texture and detail as the sumptuous tapestries Henry VIII hung in his palaces. Hilary Mantel tells the historical story of Henry's early reign and break from the Catholic Church from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from obscure beginnings to work for Cardinal Thomas Woolsey and then Henry himself.
The focus of the story is the political, religious, and Parliamentary maneuvers endeavored so that Henry could annul his marriage to Katherine, with whom he had a daughter, Mary, but no son. The machinations in themselves are interesting, involving diplomatic missions to France to get the support of the French king, court intrigues, assassinations, and imprisonment of political enemies.
What sets the book apart is Mantel's delving into the ideas behind the machinations. Henry's efforts to wrest power from Rome occurred during the religious upheaval of the Protestant reformation, but Henry himself was no Protestant. He belied Martin Luther and his followers to be heretics and opposed publishing the Bible in English. He didn't want to start a new Church; he just wanted to be head of the Catholic Church in England. But Protestant ideas were in the air, and Mantel weaves them into the story, presenting Cromwell as a Lutheran sympathizer and others within Henry's inner circle as ardent believers.
Another idea Mantel explores is the role of England's Parliament in the monarch's affairs. It was during the reign of Henry and the other Tudors that England's Parliament coalesced into its modern form. Henry used Parliament to ratify and thereby legitimize his decisions. Mantel looks at the political theory behind these events, offering an understanding of where they fit on the political continuum from total control by the Church to constitutional monarchy.
This blending of ideas and action make Wolf Hall fascinating. The addition of myriad details of daily life in the early 16th Century, the fact that so many characters shared first names, and Mantel's technique of overlapping conversation with the speakers' mental observations make the story hard to follow on occasion. But just as it is not necessary to trace a single thread in a tapestry to be dazzled by the overall creation, Wolf Hall is no less a masterpiece for getting a little tangled now and then.
Wolf Hall won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was my Booker choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.