Wolf Hall Author Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell, and Why Henry VIII Was the Ultimate Romantic

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Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage

It feels like Wolf Hall season in America: Six years after Hilary Mantel's historical novel about Thomas Cromwell hit shelves, its BBC adaptation will be introduced to U.S. audiences on PBS this Sunday, and a Broadway version debuts next week. With so much palace intrigue hanging in the balance, we caught up with Mantel at the MoMA during Peggy Siegal’s sneak preview of the first two episodes of Wolf Hall. The Booker Prize–winning author described her novels as "an echo chamber that feels like a hall of mirrors," and revealed some interesting commentary regarding King Henry VIII. It turns out he was not the womanizing lothario that we thought.

Do you think the Wolf Hall audience should root for Cromwell?
I want the audience to try and understand him a little better. I want people to walk a mile in his shoes. I’m hoping people look at the world from behind Cromwell’s eyes instead of rushing to judgment and automatically vilifying him. People need to ask themselves, What would I do? He’s reacting to circumstances that can sometimes be very frightening, and he’s able to advance his station despite the obstacles in his way. 

Your story focuses on the middle class more than most period pieces. Why was that important to you?
Cromwell was a blacksmith’s son. He moved through London’s professional middle class with lawyers and businessmen, and this aspect usually gets ignored. I think some writers might not think it’s dramatic enough. It lacks the glamour of the court and the desperation of sniveling, toothless paupers who have nothing. But I think it’s important to visit the merchants and the lawyers. Society is about much more than a few elite people or those stuck in servitude. It creates a much more complex but realistic reality.

Who you think was the Henry VIII’s true love?
Hmmm …

Was it Anne Boleyn?
True love, that’s such a tricky thing, and I really think it’s all about timing. So I think maybe it was Jane Seymour. But, if she’d lived, perhaps he would have tired of her.

Henry VIII did have a roving eye.
Not really.

No?
You have to remember, he didn’t know that he was going to have six wives. It might sound like an obvious point to make, but he truly believed that every wife was the love of his life. I think people forget that he was initially married for 20 years. He really believed in marriage. And he was nothing like his contemporaries in the romance department.

How so?
Unlike Francis I of France, Henry VIII was remarkably discreet. He didn’t have a harem of women.

Maybe it’s my American viewpoint, but I default to thinking of him as a philanderer.
I actually don’t think that’s a uniquely American viewpoint at all. Most people feel this way about him, but quite the opposite is true. King Henry VIII was a romantic, and he truly believed each relationship would work out. He thought that he had to shape his life and shape his kingdom for each woman. Men didn’t think that way in those days. He wanted true love.

You’re right, that is romantic.
Yes, and the men of his time simply couldn’t understand his behavior.