Inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell: my cheerful rivalry with Hilary Mantel

Leading historian Diarmaid MacCulloch was researching a book on the Tudor statesman. Then he discovered the late novelist was, too

Ruthlessly effective: Thomas Cromwell as portrayed by Mark Rylance in the BBC's Wolf Hall Credit: Company Productions/BBC

What a terrible loss to literature we have suffered in the shockingly unexpected death of Hilary Mantel. The loss for me is deeply personal: the departure of a wonderfully brave and clear-sighted friend and confidant, let alone one of the novelists that I have most admired and respected.  

I rejoiced in her writing well before I knew her – first in a quarter-hour of that late and much-lamented story slot on Woman’s Hour, which lit up a drive on the otherwise uninspiring Oxford road to Bicester.  The extract was from Beyond Black, a brilliant study of a medium not as fraudulent as she might seem. As soon as I could, I bought this dark comedy, which is still to my mind one of her finest books, so full of her characteristic playfulness with a range of themes that recur in many of her works. Here is a monster of a mother enfolded in a distinctly mundane vision of the supernatural, and encompassed by Mantel’s extraordinarily precise evocation of a particular setting: in this case, the seedy half-suburb, half-countryside of west London that stretches towards Heathrow. I was hooked.

Then, as I began researching a biography of the ruthlessly effective Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, I learned that Mantel was planning a major novel on the same man. A year or two along, I eagerly seized the first publication of Wolf Hallto see what she had made of him.  The opening sections still seem to me a challenge for the reader to enter, but I quickly came to revel in the studied lack of concessions to the casual peruser, and to my delight, I found myself in the same world that I had entered myself through another door. 

Once I had finished reading, I decided to enterprise something I’ve rarely done, and wrote her a fan letter.  The gist of it was “Dear Ms Mantel: Look, you know that this is a great novel, because it’s just won the Booker Prize, but as a sometime doctoral student of Sir Geoffrey Elton, I want to tell you that your Tudor England is the one I recognise.”  In fact, I added, I gasped at the detail that you knew about it. This time a dull West Country train journey was enlivened by her very warm and speedy email back, and our friendship began. 

Powerhouse performance: Ben Miles in the RSC production of The Mirror and the Light Credit: Alastair Muir

Now we were writing in awareness of each other’s work, with a pleased awareness of what different tasks we were undertaking. A novelist is not an historian; she has carte blanche to fill in what we don’t know, and never has to say in that wet-blanket style of historians “It is possible that …” or “in the absence of precise evidence, one may …” 

Moreover, she and I worked in utterly different ways. She would construct a scene or episode whenever it occurred to her, regardless of where it might end up in the overarching narrative, and she was highly amused at my resolutely unimaginative linear plodding first through the primary sources and then through the text of the biography that I built on them. “Where have you got to now?”, she would enquire, and would laugh when I replied “23rd March 1537”. Her Tudor England is not the ‘real’ Tudor England, any more than Philip Pullman’s Oxford (or rather Lara’s Oxford) is the city and university in which I live and have my being; but Mantel’s Cromwellian England informs the other place, and is a profound and often unsettling commentary on that parallel universe. 

Mantel suffered a great deal of criticism from a certain sort of Roman Catholic for being ‘anti-Catholic’, or for the ‘unfairness’ of her portrait of Sir Thomas More. She was a good deal more patient with such comments than I would have been; Hell, it’s just a novel. Moreover, it is a novel explicitly inside the head of Master Thomas Cromwell, and the reality is that he wasn’t particularly fair to Master More either.  


The late Hilary Mantel Credit: David Levenson/Getty

As the next two novels unfolded, we enjoyed a cheerful rivalry in seeing who would get to the finishing-post first.  The plodder biographer won the race, for the intricate architecture of Bring up the Bodiesand The Mirror and the Light needed careful preparation and execution. Yet that delay did mean that she had my complete typescript in front of her for that third volume, and I’m pleased to see how my Tudor-palace service-wing did add one or two corridors or turrets to her own structure. 

I was also pleased to look over her own draft and suggest the tiny ‘factual’ adjustments that I knew that she would like: it’s the Prior of St Bartholomew’s, not the Abbot of St Bartholomew’s, I would say. Thereafter, on occasions we had the pleasure of being able to chat together in public about the differences and also the conjunctions of our two works. Once, memorably, we were before a marquee-full of enthusiastic folk in Thomas Cromwell’s own proposed retirement home in Leicestershire, Launde Abbey (‘myself for Launde’): a wise and lovely choice of ex-monastery, even if it was his beloved son Gregory who was given the chance to enjoy it and who died there – in his bed, unlike his father – leaving a stately monument in the house chapel.  

Meanwhile, Hilary’s novels were blossoming into stage and TV drama, and Ben Miles and Mark Rylance both gave superb performances as Cromwell that were fascinatingly different from each other: a tribute to the fertile imagination from which they both sprang. She took a huge interest in these outgrowths of her trilogy, and her enthusiasm and creativity inspired love and affection all around her.  Her unaffected delight in her success and international celebrity were a pleasure to witness: a reward for the many struggles that had gone before.  Now we have lost so much by a death that came too soon; but how much too she has left us, in a voice that death cannot still.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is the author of Thomas Cromwell: a Life, and Emeritus Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University