Blog, Wolf Hall

Mike’s Marginalia for Part IV

she [Mary] hints, in Castilian, that it is her women’s disorder 

From about the age of 15 on, Mary Tudor (Katherine’s daughter with Henry; later to be Bloody Mary or Mary I) suffered from irregular periods (and there are a LOT of factors that could have encouraged this, like stress, for example). She eventually dies from either uterine or ovarian cancer. She has one hysterical pregnancy which leads to some in the court privately mocking her, and which she took to mean a punishment from God for not persecuting Protestants enough. In a sense she is entirely the product of her parents: a body not built for childbearing from her mother, and a sense of God’s eternal disappointment from her father.

“Your cardinal would ask the same question. As if I were a stranger here.” 

This is one of several passages where Katherine stands the eff up to ALL the power. She is queen. She will continue to be queen. No man can take that away from her. (Of course, men do take that away from her.)

‘You know,’ the queen says, ‘that the Cardinal of York was accused under the praemunire laws of usurping your lord father’s jurisdiction as ruler of England. Now Master Cromwell and his friends find all the clergy complicit in that crime, and ask them to pay a fine of more than one hundred thousand pounds.’
‘Not a fine. We call it a benevolence.’

Several things going on here, at least for me: For one, this is a legit argument between two believers. Katherine, a devoted and devout Catholic, would see the dissolution of the monasteries and the channeling of money in England both a little hypocritical (remember, she’s married to Henry, who is actively trying every way from Sunday to annul this marriage through Rome; and she’s seeing money that rightfully going to God, via his representative on earth, is being used to fill Henry’s coffers, and Henry is not, in her mind, a worthy representative of God), and she’d call them a fine; and Cromwell, as proto-Protestant, would disagree.

But it’s also an example of Cromwell re-setting the boxes on a wagon; it’s a semantics game, even, nothing more. “We don’t call it that, we call it this.” We don’t call it rumor, we call it truth. And anything can be truth if someone believes enough in it, like fairies in Peter Pan.

That we need no new Wolsey, I concur. With the attacks on the bishops, I do not concur. Wolsey was to me an enemy. That does not alter my feelings towards our Holy Mother the church.’He thinks, Wolsey was to me a father and a friend. That does not alter my feelings towards our Holy Mother the church.

One of the benefits I get from looking back over these sections to share my mad scribblings is sometimes I find an answer to a question that has been asked a few times, but to which I relied on context clues rather than the text itself.

In this case, the question has been: How could Cromwell be so close to Wolsey if Wolsey was a Catholic and Cromwell not? The context clue answer I give is: Wolsey isn’t Catholic in the way Katherine is a Catholic. Wolsey is a political and opportunistic Catholic. And I still think that’s true.

But the text challenges my answer a bit because there are some things Wolsey does and believes that are Catholic, and not in accord with Cromwell’s only theology. And that’s why the above is so important. The text tells us why they can be close: Cromwell knows that Wolsey, while not exuberantly Catholic, was Catholic enough for him to think, “This man I love as a father is Catholic, and that does not change what I think about the Church.”

He throws an arm around Rafe’s bony little shoulders and squeezes him; it is a liberation to be away from Katherine, from the girl flinching like a whipped bitch.

‘Once I myself, with Giovannino – well, with some boys I knew –’ He stops: what is this? I don’t tell stories about myself.

I love this nod to how little there is in the historical record about Cromwell as a human who grew up.

‘If you don’t like Henry, you can go abroad and find another prince, but I tell you – if this were Italy, Katherine would be cold in her tomb.’

‘But you swore,’ Gregory says, ‘that you respected the queen.’

‘So I do. And I would respect her corpse.’

‘You would not work her death, would you?

He halts. He takes his son’s arm, turns him to look into his face. ‘Retrace our steps through this conversation.’ Gregory pulls away. ‘No, listen, Gregory. I said, you give way to the king’s requests. You open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does. Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen. What is he, a monster? Even now he has affection for her; how could he not? And he has a soul he hopes may be saved. He confesses every day to one or other of his chaplains. Do you think the Emperor does so much, or King Francis? Henry’s heart, I assure you, is a heart full of feeling; and Henry’s soul, I swear, is the most scrutinised soul in Christendom.’

Wriothesley says, ‘Master Cromwell, he is your son, not an ambassador.’

This moment is terrifying and I love it. This is the Cromwell his enemies imagined: quick with both violence and justification. He’s willing to tell you to your face that you didn’t hear exactly what you heard. I also love the line “Retrace our steps through this conversation.”
and then, we get:

Two men with a studded chest have got wedged in a doorway. He thinks of himself on the road, a bruised child, loading wagons to get a lift. He wanders over. ‘How did this happen, boys?’

He turns on a dime not to reassure and comfort his son for that very intense and brief interaction that just happened; but he takes time to help these boys who remind him of himself. The way Mantel writes Gregory and Cromwell’s relationship, it’s this complicated pride/disappointment where he is proud at how much Gregory, his son, passes as a gentleman in ways Cromwell can’t, nor couldn’t; but disappointed in how unalike they are, and not sure how to be comfortable around him.

In Part 3, we sat at a very uncomfortable dinner at Thomas More’s house, and we get Cromwell’s view and interpretation of the relationships there. How would Thomas More tell the story of that encounter above, through his own point of view?

Sion calls Anne an eel

And Walter called Cromwell an eel at the very beginning of the novel. And I loved the part of the conversation where we described Anne and Cromwell as two grifters with uneasy admiration for each other. Both are slippery. (Sion, by the way, is the Putney boatman that Cromwell rides with, who says very filthy things about Anne and her brother, and what they do together, and where he licks her, and how far.)

Thomas Hitton


He’s not a character in the novel, but his burning-at-the-stake (i  1530) is an event that is mentioned in passing to give us a sense of where we are in the Reformation process in England.

He’s considered the first English Protestant martyr of the Reformation (even though Lollards had been burned at the stake starting in the late 15th century — and I’ll get to Lollards later) (I’m so sorry).

Hitton believed in the supremacy of Scripture (over the supremacy of the Church), which would have marked him as a heretic by the Pope immediately. (Partly because if you could read the Bible for yourself, you didn’t need to come to mass. You didn’t have to pay for indulgences. The transactional nature of Catholicism would be unnecessary if people had the manual and knew how to play the game themselves. This is also a theme that comes up in the Christian New Testament, when Jesus performs miracles for free that normally would have required a Temple Sacrifice, which would require payment not just for the priest, but to the purveyor of goats and sheep. It’s also, interestingly, one of the conflicts in the history of Islam: Mohammad’s idea of monotheism would put an end to an entire economy built on the worship of many gods. If there’s only one, you’ve just put about a hundred temples and priests out of work.)

The other thing that Hitton believed, and makes me love him more, is that he did not believe that marriage or baptism needed to be done by a priest or in a church. And this is very radical, indeed — that anyone can perform a sacrament of belief, without an intercessory. (I’ll finish with one last parenthesis here and then I’ll get back to the rest of the book including the Lollards, I didn’t forget. During the Inquisition, when some village priests were being burned for heresy, the Church encountered a large-scale problem: were the baptisms, marriages, masses, and confessionals valid? An argument might be no, they’re not, because they were done by a non-believer. But the Church quickly solved for x by saying, “It’s not the person, it’s the words and the movement.” As long as a priest made the sign of the cross and said the Latin, it was the words, or spell if you wanna join me in some deep heresy, I’ll be the one burning on fire, you can’t miss me; the Torah is filled with stories of people working God’s will all while be very terrible, I’m like you, Joseph, and your stupid Dream Coat.) Okay, I think I’ve made my point.

vere dignum et justum est, aequum a salutare

It’s Latin, and the beginning of this prayer: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere.”

Jane, Lady Rochford, says this when Cromwell shares the news that Bishop Fisher’s cook is going to be executed by being boiled alive. Lady, Jane Rochford, is also my favorite.

She is also not a good person.

John & Alice Petyt

He’s a merchant in the novel, and an actual historical figure, mostly because, as a Protestant, John Foxe included him in his Book of Martyrs (the full title of which is Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous days, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great persecutions and horrible troubles that have been wrought and practised by the Romish prelates, specially in this realm of England and Scotland, from the year of our Lord 1000 unto the time now present; gathered and collected according to the true copies and writings certificatory, as well of the parties themselves that suffered, as also out of the bishops’ registers, which were the doers thereof; by John Foxe), as he died shortly after being released from imprisonment under suspicion of holding forbidden translations of the New Testament.

Foxe’s martyrology is…not necessarily to be trusted, but should be believed*. And Mantel draws heavily on the martyrology. 

[* While the entries may be stretched and bent in a way that all the truth slips out, Foxe’s book does capture the general feeling a Protestant during that time. So maybe we can say that it’s psychologically and sociologically truthful, while being mostly dishonest.]

One thing I brought up in our very first discussion is how every single piece of writing is political; it’s an attempt to get you to believe in an ideology. And histories are tricky: you need to know the author’s point of view to know what their slant is. Because all histories have a slant. 

Mantel’s bias is absolutely anti-Catholic. She’s stated this in interviews, and she’s written about it. And it’s not a good idea to rely on an author’s biography to understand a book, I think it can be interesting to consider motivations. This story about John Petyt doesn’t reflect well on Thomas More. Both Mantel’s Cromwell, and Mantel herself, don’t care much for Thomas More. It’s a good story for Mantel’s thesis; it may or may not be accurate at all.

“what, my maidenhead for a grocer.”

This is a sick burn, Anne. And we salute you.

Anne says, “Mark? Who? Oh. Is that his name?”

A gentle spoiler: Mark Smeaton gets swept up in Anne’s adultery trial. And I really like what Mantel is doing here: she’s showing both how some rumors get created, and she shows Anne contradicting the rumors. It makes the second book even more powerful.

the duke’s words will be rolling down Gracechurch Street, rolling to the river and across the bridge, till the painted ladies in Southwark are passing them mouth to mouth like ulcers

This depiction of swift-footed rumor is upsetting and perfect.

Walter once said, that his mother used to say her prayers to a little carved saint she’d had in her bundle when she came down as a young woman from the north, and she used to turn it away before she got into bed with him. Walter had said, dear God, Thomas, it was St fucking Felicity if I’m not mistaken, and her face was to the wall for sure the night I got you.

Several things about St Felicity:

1) In legend, she’s described as the “mother of seven martyrs.” So Walter may be making a joke that a saint who was no stranger to, you know, night-time under-the-cover grown-up stuff (pardon my crassness), shouldn’t need to be turned to the wall.

2) Because stories about saints and martyrs get higgedly-piggedly real quick, there’s a lot of confusion as to whether Felicity is the same as the woman with seven sons mentioned in 2 Maccabees (btw, there are three other contenders for the name of that lady, who watches as her sons are forced to eat pork and then executed one by one in front of her: Hannah, Miriam, and Solomonia), or if she’s a later Christian interpretation. In Christian tellings, Felicity and her seven sons are Christians in an area known for paganism, and when they won’t worship the local god, or denounce their own, they are all sentenced to death. All Felicity asks is that she be allowed to be executed last, so she could watch each of her sons die, and give him strength in case he should falter in his faith to save his life.

Helicopter parents, amiright?

1531: it is the summer of the comet.

Halley’s comet. And there’s a whole section of its Wikipedia page devoted to pronunciation.

Nikolaus Kratzer

Mantel calls him “the king’s astronomer.” Which is mostly correct. He was the king’s magician or sorcerer.

Modern historians generally don’t like to use those terms, because magic doesn’t exist. They don’t see that science is just magic with an explanation. But we chance misunderstanding the people of this time if we misunderstand how active a role magic had in the imagination. And being a magician didn’t carry the stigma it does today (there is no ethical reason to be a close-up magician ever).

Kratzer’s job, as court astronomer, would be to study the heavens, looking for signs and portents. In 1531, the signs and portents were things like “a kingdom will fall” or “the king’s health is in peril.” We have astronomer’s today who do the same thing, looking for signs and portents in the sky. Their signs and portents are things like “a comet is going to kill us” or 
“no, this other comet is going to kill us.” And maybe 500 years in the future people will look at all our great stores of knowledge with equal, condescending indulgence.

In the year 1456 there was a comet like this one. Scholars recorded it, Pope Calixtus excommunicated it

Did he?

Something that I think Mantel is masterful at, but we don’t always catch her unless we try to look deeper, is not always giving us the truth, but giving us what was believed. There’s no documentary evidence that Pope Calixtus III excommunicated Halley’s comet in 1456; it appears in no papal bull.

A cool thing about Calixtus, in the “Nice Timing, Guy” sense, is that he had the case of Joan of Arc re-opened and found her innocent. In 1456. When she was executed in 1421. LET’S HEAR IT FOR MEN!

“She is selling herself by the inch”

I both love the luxurious nastiness of this quip from Mary Boleyn, as well as the echo of Wolsey’s “Price me by the yard!”

He shows Owen Madoc the knife he has made for himself, slung on a cord under his shirt: its stub of blade, like a single, evil tooth. ‘What do you think?’

‘Christ,’ Madoc says. ‘Be careful who you leave it in.”

I like this allusion/call-back to the did-he-didn’t-he kill someone in Putney when he was 15.

His sister Bet says, ‘Another thing those Cornish have got, they have got a giant called Bolster, who’s in love with St Agnes”

This is a heartbreaker.

Once upon a time, there was a fearsome giant named Bolster, a Cornishman, if giants can be men, who gobbled the bones of children, the gentry, ate all the mutton, and generally made a nuisance of himself. (Unless that’s just the story the children and gentry and mutton-keepers tell, and he wasn’t a nuisance at all, but more an inconvenience, a debt owed to the monster’s humanity. The story doesn’t say.) Men came from all parts to challenge the giant in battle, and in challenging, kill; and in killing, win the love of a maiden or break a curse — the ways of straight men makes less sense than boiling water in an eggshell on the stove. But Bolster bested them all. And ate them. Unless he didn’t. We don’t get Bolster’s side. One day a beautiful child, Agnes, who will later be a saint, not for martyring herself, but for– let’s let the story wend as a sleepy river. The child Agnes, who would become a saint, snatched hold tightly the heart of the giant Bolster; clung to it before he could give it to her, which he would have, so in love with her he was. Agnes, this saint, says, “But Bolster, how? How much do you love me?” and Bolster speaks of the wideness of the world, and all its pockets; he invents eternity to explain the maths of his love. Only Agnes, St Agnes to be, says, “Prove it. See yon where the cliffs form a porridge bowl of sorts? Cut yourself here,” and she points to one arm, “and here,” and she points to the other arm in a way not for attention; “and fill it with thy blood, and then I will know, as much as anyone can know anything in a world with compound interest and the too-many names of God, that thou dost love me. I guess.” And this Bolster did, with a fulsome heart filled full with ecstatic love and opportunity to prove his love; but, unfortunately, not filled with enough blood to fill the natural cistern, which had a small crack in it such that a rich man could pass to heaven through it, and all Bolster’s blood dripped like spring or the dreams of boys into the surf, out to the sea, deep within the ocean.” 

You become a saint not just for getting yourself killed sometimes.

By the tits of holy Agnes


“Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?”

As I mentioned, Henry was a lyricist, and we have some of his songs. Here’s a recording of Henry’s “Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?“:

Here are the lyrics:

Alas what shall I do for love
for love alasse what shall I do
Syth now so kynd
I do yow fynde
to kepe yow me vnto

 [Alas, what shall I do for love?
For love, alas, what shall I do?
Since now so kind
I do you find
To keep you me unto

​​‘I want a job, Lady Carey. It isn’t enough to be a councillor. I​ ​need an official place in the household.’

‘I’ll tell her.’

‘I want a post in the Jewel House. Or the Exchequer.’

She nods. ‘She made Tom Wyatt a poet. She made Harry Percy​ ​a madman. I’m sure she has some ideas about what to make you.’

I’m interested in this moment of Cromwell asking for something. Up to this point, I think we’ve primarily seen him just sort of take what he wanted, or infiltrate in such a way that he becomes indispensable before​ he becomes questionable.

Pastime with Good Company

Another song by Henry VIII


Pastime with good company
I love and shall until I die;
Grudge who will, but none deny,
So God be pleased thus live will I.
For my pastance
Hunt, sing, and dance.
My heart is set:
All goodly sport
For my comfort,
Who shall me let?
Youth must have some dalliance,
Of good or ill some pastance;
Company methinks then best
All thoughts and fancies to digest:
For idleness
Is chief mistress
Of vices all.
Then who can say
But mirth and play
Is best of all?
Company with honesty
Is virtue vices to flee:
Company is good and ill
But every man hath his free will.
The best ensue,
The worst eschew,
My mind shall be:
Virtue to use,
Vice to refuse,
Thus shall I use me.

Joan Boughton

This is one of the most effecting scenes for me in the book — Cromwell witnessing this terrible crime against a woman for her religious beliefs, and the aftermath, where he says that he will pray for her, and another woman smears the back of his, Cromwell’s, hand with the ash of the executed woman.

Joan Boughton is an historical figure. She was a Lollard — or, more accurately, a follower of John Wycliffe.

Religious labels tend to start as pejoratives: “Christian” was a slur, “Puritan” was used with scorn. So, Lollards were called Lollards by their detractors, probably for the mumbly way they prayed.

Wycliffe and his followers are sometimes called proto-Protestants. Wycliffe was no friend of the Catholic Church, at any rate.

“Oh by the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!”

We don’t give enough credit to Norfolk’s beautiful use of English.

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

Just a gorgeous, gorgeous distillation of where true power comes from.

‘You were never pre-contracted,’ he says.

Cromwell’s interrogation/haranguing of Henry Percy — who had been affianced to Anne Boleyn (at least according to Percy) — and Cromwell’s revelation to Percy that Anne does not love him at all now is so brutal, and a necessary insight into Cromwell.

Eliza Barton

It’s tough being a lady with visions in the late middle ages.

3 thoughts on “Mike’s Marginalia for Part IV”

  1. OK—your remarks about Mary and Katherine of Aragon—Mary may well have suffered from fibroids. They are rather common. The abdominal pain and irregular menses and often excessive bleeding are all symptoms of fibroid. And usually fibroids prevent pregnancy.

    Katherine: Interesting research (which I only heard of yesterday). Two researchers have suggested that Henry may well have carried the Kell negative antigen. In this situation the female partner may have one normal pregnancy and live child, followed by miscarriage and babies born to die at once. (Thus similar to the RH – syndrome with successive pregnancies, but more severe. I had three pregnancies with no problem, and I am A-.) This pattern holds true for the two wives who bore more than one child. Jane did not live to have more than the one, since puerperal fever got her. It also holds for known mistresses—only Bessie Blount bore a a viable and surviving child. Therefore, saying Katherine is the one responsible for the continual miscarriage—not proven. Her sister Juana certainly could pop ‘em out with no trouble, and Isabella bore at least three who lived to maturity. (Margaret of Austria was blamed for Juan’s early death, of course…blame the woman.)

    Further—a known additional aspect of the Kell syndrome has its own name—McLeod syndrome—which shows up in late thirties or early forties with increasing weakness of the legs, plus often mood changes resembling psychotic breaks. Sound familiar???

    That glorious hero (hah) Henry V was fond of burning Lollards…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you are back Mike! I remember watching the Henry VIII and Elizabeth R series on PBS with Glenda Jackson. I absolutely remember the famous scenes with her hysterical pregnancy and then the cancer. It was very traumatizing as an eight year old!!!! Now I’m a nurse. I bet she had the BRAC gene.

    Liked by 1 person

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