Fans of all things Tudor will be thrilled to know that a weekend conference dedicated to the late Dame Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy will be held next summer at one of the best preserved private Tudor manor houses in England. The choice of Cadhay House was inspired by Hilary Mantel herself, who was a frequent visitor to the manor, with its magnificent gardens, at the invitation of the current owner Rupert Thistlethwaite - a descendent of the original owners from the Tudor period.
Wolf Hall and top historians
The star-studded line up of speakers will be joined by celebrity actors from the stage production of the Wolf Hall Trilogy, with Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch giving the keynote address. In his masterpiece biography of Thomas Cromwell, MacCulloch writes,
‘Thomas Cromwel’s name has happily become much more familiar in the last decade, thanks principally to Hilary Mantel’s inspired novel series beginning with Wolf Hall. To call them historic novels does them an injustice; they are novels which happen to be set in the sixteenth century, and with profound knowledge of how that era functioned. Novels they remain, as Mantel herself has frequently (and with mounting weariness) emphasised to would be critics.’ - (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell - A Life, Penguin Books, 2019.
Even so, Mantel enables students of Tudor history to engage in an imaginative journey into the very heart of Tudor political life and the chance to experience it through the eyes of one of the period's non-royal, yet central characters; Thomas Cromwell - the blacksmith’s boy who became Earl of Essex. The reader enters not only into the inner thoughts of Mantel’s protagonist, but also into the inner sanctum of royal power.
From Cromwell’s point of view we experience the tumultuous nature of King Henry VIII; the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey; the divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon; the English Church’s break with Rome; the execution of Sir Thomas More; the rise and fall of Queen Anne Boleyn; the unexpected importance and loss of Queen Jane Seymour; the disappointing arrival of Queen Anne of Cleves; and the final demise of Cromwell himself. That’s not to mention the birth of the future King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I; all in the space of six short years.
‘Never a dull moment’ is an apt phrase to describe the period that saw Thomas Cromwell rise up from almost nowhere to become the most powerful politician of his time; thanks to the patronage of his King. Mantel has Cromwell say it thus:
“How many men can say, as I must, 'I am a man whose only friend is the King of England'? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away, and I have nothing.” - Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies 4th Estate, 2012.
It was this unique and tenuous position of power that inspired Mantel to approach her treatment of the machinations of the Tudor dynasty from Cromwell’s perspective; as Kate Malby notes in her Financial Times review of MacCulloch’s biography - Mantel’s view of Cromwell does not necessarily fit the popular conception of his persona:
‘The playwright Robert Bolt (in his play ‘A Man For All Seasons’) cast Sir Thomas More as martyr for private conscience and Cromwell as murderous Machiavel; novelist Hilary Mantel flipped the roles with equally Manichaean duality, sketching More as theocratic extremist and Cromwell as proto-Enlightenment sceptic.’ - Kate Malby, Financial Times, September 2018.
Hilary once confessed that her initial ambition was to be an academic historian, but writing novels and short stories seemed to take over. Her two epic historical works, A Place Of Greater Safety, and Wolf Hall Trilogy seem to provide an outlet for the combined inner historian and the imaginative story teller. She was particularly interested in the place of ghosts in her stories; whether it was in her memoir Giving Up The Ghost (4th Estate, 2003) or Beyond Black, 4th Estate, 2005.)
Several critics have commented that Mantel's Wolf Hall Trilogy is in part another ghost story where she has conjured up the spirits of historical characters in a form that they become embodied in the imagination of the reader, to the extent that we feel we are present in the milieu of the action on the page. I would also observe, that by a clever sleight of hand, Mantel gives us a very modern thinking Cromwell - an identifiable modern liberal humanist, dressed in the outfit of a renaissance man with all the manners of the times; a modern agnostic rather than a fervent Reformation Protestant. It is possibly easier for us to recognise Mantel’s Cromwell than the more accurate portrayal of the historical person in MacCulloch’s biography.
The Tudor Manor at Cadhay House, Exeter, Devon, England
The Wolf Hall Weekend (23/24 June 2024) will help us to consider all these historical and literary nuances with the help of history academics, critics and actors: see the full list of speakers here:https://wolfhallweekend.com/speakers/
More about the history of Cadhay House
Cadhay House has the unique "Courtyard of The Sovereigns", an enclosed courtyard, hidden from public view, that features sculptures of the four Tudor monarchs that William Paulet (a contemporary Privy Councillor with Thomas Cromwell) served in under Henry VIII Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. Paulet’s niece rebuilt the house and was responsible for the early 17th century sculptures - that remain intact today. Rupert Thistlethwaite has worked hard to keep Cadhay as close to its original character as possible and has made it available for the upcoming Wolf Hall Weekend.
If you would like to be part of this inaugural weekend event to celebrate Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy (as well a Tudor Banquet), you can discover more and purchase tickets online here: https://wolfhallweekend.com
About the organiser of Wolf Hall Weekend
David Holland was a high school teacher of English History before entering a long career at HarperCollins publishers and later as literary agent. He is now a writer and together with his wife and family lives near Devon; he is the founder of the Wolf Hall Weekend. You can read all about this once-in-a-lifetime event at the website wolfhallweekend.com