The Wolf Hall Trilogy, a Booker Prize Winner series by Hilary Mantell

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The Wolf Hall Trilogy is a historical saga written by English author Hilary Mantel and published by Fourth Estate, between 2009 and 2020.

Wolf Hall Trilogy Reading Guide

The Wolf Hall trilogy consists of the three following books:

Wolf Hall (2009)
Bring Up the Bodies (2012)
The Mirror and the Light (2020), covering the last four years of Cromwell.

What is the Wolf Hall trilogy about?

The synopsis of Wolf Hall

Sometimes called the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the Wolf Hall trilogy is a fictionalized biography of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer who served a chief minister to King Henry VIII.

As the synopsis for the first book puts it: “England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe oppose him.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?”

A fictionalized biography

After having written about the French revolution, Hilary Mantell wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell. As she said on The Guardian: “Blacksmith’s boy to Earl of Essex – how did he do it? The story seemed irresistible. I thought someone else would write it.”

But no one did. Her portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is famous for being considered more sympathetic toward the man depicted until then more as a villain. Mantell didn’t sit up at her desk to rehabilitate Henry VIII’s advisor but was driven by curiosity and wanted to know more. The past biographies didn’t explore all the facets, as he didn’t seem to have a private life and her exploration of his life led her to write differently about him, beyond the easy prejudices.

She opted to write the book to reflect how our memory works (with leaps, loops, flashes) instead of the chronology approach of the historian.

More about Wolf Hall

The origin of the title

Wolf Hall (Wulfhall or Wolfhall) is the home of the Seymour family, an early 17th-century manor house in Burbage parish, Wiltshire, England. Although almost nothing worth noting happened in Wolf Hall, Mantell though it felt like an appropriate name for wherever Henry’s court was located.

Wolf Hall, on stage and on screen

The first two novels were adapted in 2013 as a two-part play by Mike Poulton with Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, and Nathaniel Parker as King Henry VIII. The play was transferred to Broadway in 2015 with the same leads and went on to be nominated for 8 Tony Awards and won one (Best Costume Design).

Both books have also been adapted as a television series for BBC Two in 2015. The six-part series stars Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII. It won Best drama series and best actor at the BAFTAs.

About Hilary Mantell

Hilary Mantel, born Hilary Mary Thompson in Glossop, Derbyshire on July 6, 1952, was a British novelist best known for her contributions to historical fiction. Mantel worked at a geriatric hospital’s social work department after finishing her legal studies at the London School of Economics and the University of Sheffield, and then as a sales assistant at Manchester’s Kendals department store.

She worked on a novel about the French Revolution, but she couldn’t find a publisher. Her debut novel “Every Day Is Mother’s Day” was released in 1985, and its sequel, “Vacant Possession” (1986), followed a year later, establishing her as a literary success.

She drew inspiration from her stay in Saudi Arabia for “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street” (1988), and she focused on the lives of Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre for “A Place of Greater Safety” (1992), which was actually the first book she attempted to publish. The Thomas Cromwell trilogy, made up of “Wolf Hall” (2009), “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012), and “The Mirror and the Light” (2020), earned Mantel two Booker Prizes, making her the first British writer and the first woman to do so.

Tragically, Hilary Mantel passed away on September 22, 2022, at the age of 70 from complications of a stroke that occurred three days earlier.

Note: Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Booker Prize. The Mirror and the Light made the longlist in the 2020 Booker Prize for fiction, but was not part of the shortlist.