The Buried Empire

There are twenty-one chapters. If it keeps on raining I mean to read them all. Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.

I’m so proud of myself for finally finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in this, the year of our Lord 2024, fifteen years after the book was published and awarded with the Man Booker Prize.

A photo of me and the cover of Wolf Hall

I tried and failed to read this book twice before: First, shortly after it came out in paperback in 2010 or so; then again in 2019 when The Guardian named it “the best book of the millennium (so far)”. Both times, I loved Mantel’s language and imagery. The pages of my copy of Wolf Hall are dense with scribbles and underlines where I marked the passages where I thought the writing was particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. But I also found the book hard to understand, and I made the following note in my 2019 reading journal: “I’ve decided to give up, again. While Tudor England is fascinating, the pacing of the book is just too slow for me to really get engaged. I’ve got other things I can read.”

But then, last year, I stumbled across Simon Haisell’s invitation to read the entire Cromwell trilogy in 2024. His weekly slow-read newsletter (“#WolfCrawl”) gave me the two key things I needed to both finish and love this book. First, Haisell gave me permission — nay, gave me encouragement — to slow down and savor the book. As I wrote in my reading journal, part of why I abandoned the book in 2019 was the feeling that “there were other things I could read.” Back then, I wasn’t in a habit of reading more than one book at a time, so all of the other things I wanted to read were backed up behind my effort to finish Wolf Hall. The book’s leisurely pace and how it dwells in small intimate scenes resists brisk reading, so I abandoned it. Haisell’s newsletter told me to approach Wolf Hall in a completely different way: Take my time, read a few pages, think about them… then go on and read whatever else I wanted to be reading. Removing the pressure to finish the book quickly really helped me enjoy it. The second key thing Haisell’s newsletter gave me was this secret decoder ring to understanding Mantel’s writing:

The style of writing in Wolf Hall can take some getting used to. The book is written entirely from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. But he is rarely named and is mostly referred to only as “he”. Of course, he’s not the only man in the book, and it can be occasionally difficult to determine which “he” is being referred to. This is why we get the clarification “He, Cromwell” at various points in the text. But if in doubt: he is usually Cromwell.

While it was tough at first, perhaps because of this writing style, I started to feel like when I read Wolf Hall, I was actually inhabiting the mind of Thomas Cromwell. When I’d finish reading my pages for the day, I’d often feel a little dazed and disoriented as I returned across 500 years to reenter my own body. Mantel’s writing is that dense and vivid. The experience made me think of something Alan Jacobs wrote in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead:

[I]t’s a valuable exercise to project ourselves imaginatively into the mental and emotional world of people from the past: not to think of what we would do if we were in that situation, but of how that experience felt, immediately, to them, to people shaped and formed as they were.

While Jacobs was talking about the value of reading old books, I think reading Mantel’s 21st century novel counts. For twenty minutes a day, I was Cromwell in England in the 1530s. And what a man to become! Enjoy Mantel’s wonderful description of Cromwell from early in the book:

It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if the abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in a courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

He is a Tudor England superhero, complete with a superhero origin story (no radioactive spider here; for these books, it’s a venomous snake in Italy).

And what a time to experience! The world was in the middle of reinventing itself. As Dan Jones wrote in his book Powers and Thrones:

…[B]y the 1530s, the western world was no longer recognizably medieval. The rise of the printed word, encounters with the New World, the collapse and fracture of the church militant, the demographic rearrangements caused by waves of the Black Death, the humanistic and artistic revolutions of the Renaissance — all these things and more had recast the shape and feel of the west, in ways that contemporaries explicitly recognized, even as the process was taking place.

When reading Wolf Hall you will be with Cromwell as he both recognizes the world is changing and simultaneously changes it. For example, I love this next passage because it shows Cromwell longing for the “simpler time” before the invention of the printing press:

He can see that, in the years ahead, treason will take new and various forms. When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of. He feels a moment of jealousy toward the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.

Shortly after thinking this, Cromwell indeed invents a new form of treason, as he gets Parliament to craft the 1533 Act of Succession. The Act not only changed history by declaring Princess Mary illegitimate and establishing Elizabeth as heir to the throne, it also established that it would be treasonous for any person to decline to swear an oath upholding the legitimacy of the law and of King Henry’s new position as head of church.

By requiring people to swear an oath, the 1533 Act of Succession became a weapon Cromwell could use to seek out his enemies. What I loved about living in Cromwell’s mind is experiencing how he viewed this partly as a battle against the dead, who were oppressively trying to prevent the creation of a new world. In this next passage, Cromwell imagines the necessity of getting everyone, including the dead, to swear the oath to the new Act of Succession. It still gives me the chills.

And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.

I am immensely grateful to Simon Haisell for guiding me through Wolf Hall — it’s truly been one of the most difficult yet enjoyable books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I’m tingling with anticipation for continuing to watch the birthing of a new world in the next two books in the Cromwell trilogy. I will leave you with this, my favorite quote from the book, because nothing so beautifully captures the essence of Wolf Hall: the story of a changing world told through the intimate study of quiet moments.

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.