Mike’s Marginalia for Part I

My original copy of Wolf Hall is scribbled in, underlined, cross-referenced, and well-wornly loved. However, it would absolutely be Exhibit A in any sanity hearing if someone was trying to have me committed in order to gain access to my vast fortune. (Joke’s on you, perspective someone! I invested heavily in scented candles and it turns out that was not a wise financial move.)

I’m going to share my marginalia for Part I. And if anyone wants to share their own thoughts — maybe something you wanted to say, but didn’t get the chance (sorry again, Robin); or your own margin notes and underlined passages — comment below! I will be careful of “spoilers.”

1) The main “contemporary” accounts of Cromwell’s life come from four sources:
– Eustache Chapuys, Ambassador to England from Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor

– Reginald Pole (who later becomes a cardinal), a Yorkist (the Yorks believed that the Tudor line should never have made it to the throne)

– Matteo Bandello, later Bishop of Agen

– John Foxe, an Elizabethan martyrologist

Only Chapuys and Pole knew Cromwell personally.

2) Chapuys says that Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith.

3) Bandello says that Cromwell arrived in Italy “after fleeing from [his] father.”

4) Pole claims that Cromwell’s father was a cloth shearer (and pay attention to cloth in the novel — from the Dutch merchants to people’s clothing); Bandello says this, too.

5) Foxe believes that the smith was Cromwell’s “natural” father; and that the cloth-shearer was his step-father.

6) It’s interesting to note that Mantel opens the novel with a quotation about the different kinds of theater, taken from Vitruvius. She also shares a cast list from a play called Magnificence: An Interlude. Following that is her own cast list. I feel this is setting the reader up to understand that so much of Court life is theater of a kind, just like so much modern government is also theater. People have roles, whether they are well-cast or not

7) It’s no spoiler to say that Cromwell will be executed, just like we know Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated and Burke Ramsey killed his sister. So I found this line, from the first page, chilling: “One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” (Another equally telling bit of foreshadowing in chapter 1 is this: “You don’t want bits of Thomas on your London jacket.”)

8) Looking back at #4 above, there are many references to weaving, too: Walter’s boot is unraveling, for instance. Weaving is a metaphor that — I’m so sorry, gang — binds the novel together.

9) Notice, too, how often scent and smells are mentioned. Especially in a novel called Wolf Hall.

10) I especially enjoyed this line about Morgan Williams: “[S]ome men have a habitual sniffle, some women have a headache, and Morgan has this wonder.”

11) Another bit of foreshadowing the end of Cromwell: “If they’re going to hang me, I want a better reason.”

12) The question Cromwell mulls over — “there might have been a knife in it somewhere; and whoever it was stuck in, it wasn’t him, so was it by him?” — is one I’d file away. I think it becomes important later on, and aligns with my opening remarks about how some people aren’t even aware they’re being dishonest about their own history.

13) Cromwell says, “I might go and be a soldier.” In Pole’s account of Cromwell’s life, Cromwell became a mercenary in Italy.

14) We get some early hints of Cromwell’s quickness and intelligence. He’s deft with languages; and, later, we’ll see him negotiate/bribe and rearrange items on a wagon to get it under a bridge easier.


16) “If you help load a cart you get a ride in it, as often as not. It gives him to think, how bad people are at loading carts. Men try to walk straight ahead through a narrow gateway with a wide wooden chest. A simple rotation of the object solves a great many problems.” This is an example of how sometimes a cigar isn’t always a cigar.

17) One way Cromwell finds to support himself while on the run is learning the “three-card trick.” When we get to Part III, the first chapter of that section is titled “The Three-Card Trick.”

18) When we get to Chapter 2, we get our first reference to wings/feathers. Keep this image in mind.

19) We meet Stephen Gardiner, a thorn in Cromwell’s side throughout the novel. Interestingly, Gardiner also comes from merchant stock: his father was a cloth merchant. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of Jasper Tudor.

[There’s scholarly disagreement about this claim on Jasper Tudor. It could be a simple mix-up passed along through time, or it could be true, or just “true.” If any case, Mantel isn’t suggesting a historical fact, but rather a rumor about Stephen Gardiner.]

20) Who’s Jasper Tudor? He was uncle to Henry VII, Henry VIII’s dad. He was instrumental in getting the Tudors on the throne. (He doesn’t do much else in the novel.)

21) Because of this, Gardiner is a distant, and awkward, cousin to the King.

22) We meet the Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey. The Archbishop of York is second only to the Archbishop of Canterbury (who, at the time of the novel, was Thomas Cranmer; we’ll get more of him later).

23) Two of Wolsey’s Big Projects were schools: Cardinal College at Oxford, and the Ipswich School.

24) Mantel uses a lot of echoing in her writing. The quipping between Cromwell and Wolsey about making the sun come out will be referenced again, later. You can think of these as motifs, if you’re a classical music/opera fan.

25) This observation about Wolsey is wonderful: “[H]e 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.”

26) Another Wolsey line I like a LOT is, “Thomas, what can I give you, to persuade you to never mention this to me again?” (Jeffrey Hearn has been on the receiving end of that from me on multiple occasions.)

27) There’s a tapestry that shows up (remember, we’re paying attention to all mentions of cloth and weaving) that is gonna be emotionally important.

28) Way back up at #14 (were we ever so young?), I mentioned Cromwell’s quickness, and his ability to creatively rearrange an issue so that it is not an issue any longer. We get a great example of that here: “If you cannot find [Henry] a son, you must find him a piece of scripture. To ease his mind.”

29) We hear about Flodden Field in this chapter. The French and the Scottish — who both hated England — had a treaty called The Auld Alliance. When Henry VIII entered France, to start “a little war,” the treaty was activated and France called on Scotland to distract England with a battle at Flodden Field. And then Katherine becomes a BADASS. “It was Katherine, that pink-and-white angel, who proposed to send the head [of James IV of Scotland] in a bag by the first crossing, to cheer up her husband in his camp. They dissuaded her; told her it was, as a gesture, un-English [note: Katherine was Spanish, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who were a little too good at The Inquisition and the pope wrote them a letter asking them to tone it down. They didn’t]. She sent, instead, a letter. And with it, the surcoat in which the Scottish king had died, which was stiffened, black and crackling with his pumped-out blood.”

30) I said, in last night’s discussion, that we only get things from Cromwell’s point of view. I want to walk that back a little, because it’s not exactly that. The narration is both third-person omniscient in some cases, but always focused on Cromwell’s brain. And there are some curious passages, like this one: “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.” Who is the “us” in that sentence? And when is “quite soon”?

31) In chapter 3, there’s an offhand comment about “green people who live in the woods.” This might be a reference to The Green Children of Woolpit. Mantel weaves myth and legends in with history, because history itself is often made up of myth and legends.

32) I love this passage: “What he says about Gregory is, at least he isn’t like I was, when I was his age; and when people say, what were you like? he says, oh, I used to stick knives in people.” And it’s a fascinating way of telling the truth in a way that it doesn’t come across as the truth.

33) And this, from Liz, about Henry’s support, and how he’s at risk of losing half the kingdom: “All women. All women everywhere in England. All women who have a daughter, but no son. All women who have lost a child. All women who have lost any hope of having a child. All women who are forty.”

34) This philosophical musing from Cromwell: “Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before?” I love this especially for the insight it gives us into how Cromwell takes in information.

35) This conversation between Cromwell and his father-in-law:

“You’re Walter’s lad, aren’t you? So what happened? Because, by God, there was no one rougher than you were when you were a boy.”

“I found an easier way to be.”

4 thoughts on “Mike’s Marginalia for Part I”

  1. The Yorks were and are RIGHT. Despite the glory of Elizabeth the Great.

    All this about cloth—wool and weaving were almost the mainstays of English finance. Why do you think the Chancellor sits on the Woolsack? English knitting was famous on the continent from the 14th century on. And the virtue of English wool culture was that the climate allowed sheep to be grazed for centuries without deteriorating the land—while in Spain, also important for wool—the arid conditions ultimately made it unprofitable—just as goats ate up the Levant, so that it is more arid centuries ago than it is now.


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