After watching The Tudors, with the wonderful James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, it was impossible to read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall without a sense of dread — fear and knowledge of what's coming for all of them — Cromwell, Henry the VIII, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon. But even with apprehension for the inevitable fates lurking around the corner for these characters and historical figures, Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall is a wonderful book, a great read.
There is something still so poignant, so fascinating, about a king who was so obsessed with a woman, with having a male heir, so torn between what he thinks is right and his heart's desire, that he would eventually sacrifice everything — his queen, his Catholicism, his political ties. Henry Tudor's story, his desperate attempts to continue his personal Tudor dynasty, wouldn't be interesting if it solely centered on the fact that he and Katherine couldn't have children and he cast her aside for a younger woman. Other kings did the same in the same situation.
What makes the story, the history, so enduringly fascinating is Henry VIII himself. His conscience and religious fears refused to allow him to just discard Katherine — at first. Henry wanted the church and his peers to approve, or at least not stand in his way. The timing of his great problem coincided with the Reformation. Disaffection was rising with the control exerted by the Catholic Church on people's — and most importantly in England's — case, and king's lives. Henry and his advisors, most of all Thomas Cromwell, saw the opportunity to change England's position both politically and religiously, shaking off the hold the Holy Roman Empire had on them. Not only was a potential new heir to be gained, but all the money that went to Rome and the Church could now be funneled to "poor" king Henry, if Cromwell — where his predecessor Cardinal Wolsey and so many others had failed — was able to succeed in getting Henry what he wanted.
As Cromwell is told, and as he tells everyone in his household, "Arrange your face." Everyone involved in the king's "great matter" had an angle, just as everyone in life and politics does today. Henry wants a son. Cromwell wants a king he can influence. Anne Boleyn wants to be Queen. Katherine is queen and doesn't want to see her daughter Mary, the rightful heir, disinherited. But these desires are not pure, they are motivated by outward pressures — Henry by his masculinity and an obsession with his Tudor lineage. Cromwell needing to make a better place in the uncertain world for himself and his family.