Unlocking Cromwell: An interview with Dame Hilary Mantel

‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies explore the man and motivations behind this most masterful of political figures.


How did you first come across Cromwell, and when did you decide to write about him?

I first came across him when I was a child learning history in a Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. As I am a contrarian, it made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More, and I carried that question with me. When I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s, before I’d finished my first novel. There seemed to be a lot of blanks in his story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work. 

When you eventually came to write about Cromwell, was there a discovery that helped you to unlock his character?

When I began writing Wolf Hall, it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?’ You’ve got to try to answer that question – it’s the very kind of question that novels are for. But what made me sure that I could work with him, so to speak, was a letter he wrote to a friend in the 1520s,when he was an MP. It is a huge rhetorical description of the course of Parliament and all the business it dealt with, which finishes with a simple, and totally deflationary, line. I paraphrase: ‘And at the end of it, absolutely nothing changed.’ The wry humour in that letter showed me there was a personality that I could write about. Another thing that drew me was Cromwell’s will, which he wrote towards the end of the 1520s.When you’ve seen somebody’s life so minutely taken apart, when you know who’s going to get his books and who’s going to get his second-best gelding, and you know the names of the people in his household, you become part of that life. You see his daily existence and routine and his whole system of orienting to the world. Seeing the will was like being able to go into Cromwell’s house and take photographs.

‘Alastair Campbell with an axe’ is one of the less flattering descriptions given to Cromwell by the historian David Starkey. What persuaded you that this unlikely hero not only required, but actually deserved an advocate?

I think Cromwell’s been given a very hard time by writers. In fiction and drama he’s been caricatured as an evil figure in a black cloak, lurking in the wings with dishonourable intentions. In biography his essential self is missing, because his private life is almost entirely off the record. David Starkey’s phrase works wonderfully to alert you to Cromwell’s role as a propagandist for Henry, but Cromwell was a lot more subtle than Alastair Campbell – or at least, more subtle than the popular picture of Alastair Campbell suggests. Cromwell didn’t deploy his heavy artillery unless he needed to. He was a persuader and a negotiator and, to a degree, a compromiser. I think the picture darkened with the Victorians. Cromwell’s image hasn’t always been bad: in Elizabethan legend and literature he was a hero, but to the Victorians he presented a problem. He wasn’t a varsity man. Historians couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a member of the lower orders rising so high in the hierarchy. There was also a sentimentality about the medieval world, with Cromwell seen as one of its destroyers. This idea persists today.

How did you go about finding a voice for Cromwell and getting under his skin?

Because they were so often dictated, letters, personal or impersonal, can give you a sense of the rhythm and vocabulary of the character’s spoken voice, and hence their mode of thought. So you look at those, and you look at what other people have said about your character. The main person who tells us about Cromwell is the Spanish-Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, who was his enemy, but he was also his neighbour in the city and someone whom Cromwell saw a great deal of. Chapuys was a very astute observer. He tells us how, when you were talking to Cromwell, he would fasten his eyes on your face, to calculate minutely the effect his words were having on you. He also paints a portrait of Cromwell as a very open-handed, generous, affable host, a man with whom it was wonderful to have a conversation.

Can you talk a little about what it’s been like to live with a character like Cromwell during the writing of this book?

There’s huge exhilaration in following a career like this, charting someone’s rise and rise. I do think without doubt that you become completely involved: someone of Cromwell’s strength and optimism can’t help but get into you. But the downside of it is that sooner or later your character will fall from the heights. Living with Cromwell has been a good experience so far, but you’ll have to ask me again when I’ve executed him.


Sarah O’Reilly talks to Hilary Mantel (PS Section copyright © Sarah O’Reilly 2010)

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