A beginner’s guide to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy

With the imminent release of The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited sequel to Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, our resident Tudor nut and Returns Officer Amanda Rayner has compiled a brief Q&A for newcomers to the series.

What is the Wolf Hall trilogy?

The Wolf Hall trilogy is comprised of three books: Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (3 March, 2020). It is also sometimes referred to as the Thomas Cromwell series but Hilary Mantel officially refers to it as the Wolf Hall trilogy. The books should be read in order of publication.

Why is the release of The Mirror and the Light a big deal?

Because The Mirror and the Light is the final book in the trilogy.

Because the first two books have been excellent examples of great historical fiction – impeccably researched and highly imaginative.

Because Mantel has taken a well known era of Tudor History and made it refreshing by focusing on a historical figure integral to that time who is not normally put front and centre in historical fiction. Thomas Cromwell is also a fascinating character – mentally sharp, loyal and strategic, witty and vengeful, and ultimately very human.

Because Mantel is highly regarded by readers, critics and her peers: Margaret Atwood is a big fan.

And oh yes – because the first two books have both individually won the Booker Prize. Of course what we ultimately want from the final book is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy but it is hard not to get a teensy bit excited about the fact that she could win the Booker again. But more about that later – the book hasn’t even been released yet!

What is it about?

The trilogy (set during the reign of Henry VIII) covers the life of Thomas Cromwell (a lawyer) who was born around 1485, and died on 28 July 1540. The novels focus on his time spent initially working for Lord Chancellor Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and gradually working his way up to become a favourite of the King from the early 1530’s. From this point Cromwell held many key positions including Master Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Privy Seal. He was a major supporter of the English Reformation and a key player in the downfall of Anne Boleyn. However, Cromwell was ultimately executed by order of the King in 1540. The Mirror and the Light focuses on the last four years of his life.

What if I only read non-fiction regarding Tudor History?

I’m a major fan of Tudor History and as a general rule, I now only ever read non-fiction books on the subject, but the Wolf Hall trilogy is an exception. Unless readers are totally opposed to historical fiction of any kind, Tudor fans should find the trilogy (or at least what we’ve been able to read of it so far!) intelligent, clever and haunting.

Do I need to know anything about Tudor History before starting the series?

The feedback I have heard from people who have started Wolf Hall with no background knowledge is that they do feel a little lost. This is largely because you are entering Henry VIII’s reign at a specific point and not from the beginning. Most things you will be able to pick up as you go along but I think it’s important to read a little about what is commonly known as ‘The King’s Great Matter’.

As a very quick overview, Henry VIII wanted to divorce his first wife Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn who was refusing to be just his mistress. In the Catholic Church, Henry needed special dispensation from the Pope for a divorce which was refused. Henry then argued that the marriage should be annulled as it went against a passage in the bible forbidding a man to marry his brother’s widow (Katherine was originally married to Henry’s older brother Arthur before he died but she swore they never consummated the marriage). Henry sought help from his almoner and Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey (for whom Cromwell worked) during this time and when Wolsey was unable to negotiate a solution, Henry became more and more frustrated. There is much more to this famous historical event but this is essentially the point where (after a brief introduction to Cromwell’s upbringing) Wolf Hall starts.

Pre-order The Mirror and the Light’s online, and receive a free copy of Mantel’s novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. Pre-orders will be dispatched on 5 March, 2020. This special offer is available only while stocks last.

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The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel

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